SHEER MADNESS: Animal Farm, Part II

by Jim Burnett, founder of

In Part I of “Animal Farm,” I suggested importing some gorilla behavioral specialists from a San Antonio zoo to work their magic on chauvinistic males in Startupland.

After all, if monkey whisperers from Texas can enlighten Patrick, a 23-year-old gorilla evicted from a zoo in Dallas to San Antonio due to his sexist behavior – including menacing and even sneering at female gorillas – maybe they can do something about the off-the-charts sexism that permeates Silicon Valley.

In the meantime, a number of less radical ideas were floated at “Hacking Gender,” an event held at the Bloomberg News offices at Pier 3 in San Francisco in January.

The panel was stellar:

Host Andrew Keen, author of two brilliant and dystopian books, The Cult of the Amateur and Digital Vertigo, which detail the damage done by the Internet to the culture and to the individual. Keen’s non-fiction presages Dave Eggers spooky 2013 novel The Circle, a not-so-farcical look at a Googlish company cheerfully destroying any last vestige of individual privacy.

Joan Blades, co-founder of the progressive and influential groups and; a humble superstar activist who also founded a start-up, Berkeley Systems, with her husband.

Nilofer Merchant, former Apple employee, start-up guru and advisor, writer, TED talk speaker, major mover and shaker in Startupland and beyond; known as Jane Bond in tech circles.

Vivek Wadhwa, professor and trenchant critic of the male-centric nature of Startupland, author of an upcoming book on the subject as well as author of “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent; named one of the Top 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech by Time in 2013.

Elizabeth Stark, a leader of the open Internet movement to promote free expression; founder and CEO of Threshold, which helps communities tackle social problems, Harvard law grad and former law school/tech professor at Stanford and Yale.

Some good ideas came from the panel, and moderator Keen pushed for concrete recommendations. Blades emphasized creating a kinder and gentler working environment for working moms and women. Wadhwa advocated requiring tech companies to disclose the percentages of women and minorities they hire, employ, and promote.

However, the most memorable speaker of the evening, to me, was a young engineer named Jennifer, who grounded the posh event in a hard kernel of day-to-day reality. The daughter of a tech engineer father, Jennifer got hooked on computers from an early age and loves her work.

But not the culture. When a former boss harassed her, she bailed out of Startupland for four years. Now she’s back, still incredibly frustrated with a profession that routinely demeans women, both personally and professionally.

A frustration shared by a number of other people I spoke with after the event, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s.

Including 64-year-old Olivia Herriford, something of a pioneer in computers and tech. As a black woman who started working as an engineer in the 1970s, Olivia often faced mule-like obstinacy when she was tasked with teaching engineers how to use new software.

Things haven’t improved all that much. “There’s not as much open hostility now, but it’s still very difficult for women,” says Herriford.

No kidding.

The stats starkly illustrate both scope of the problem and the snail-like pace of progress. Women in Startupland are mired in something of a 10 percent ghetto. Only about 10 percent of start-up founders are women. Only about 10 percent of tech company board members are women. Only about 10 percent of venture capital partners are female. The number of college women in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – is declining.

And the general attitude toward gender issues in the Valley? Mostly a chimp-like “What, Me Worry?” When the organizers of the October, 2013 “Hackers and Hookers” Halloween party were criticized, they half-heartedly apologized, clearly puzzled by the fuss – “it was all in the spirit of good fun and humor.”

When Twitter CEO Dick Costolo announced an all-male 10 member board of directors, the Valley yawned. At least until The New York Times broke the story, featuring critical quotes from Wadhwa. Costolo declared he couldn’t find a suitable candidate to join his boys club and didn’t want to appoint a female in order to “check off a box.” Eventually Twitter appointed one female board member, thereby upholding the 10 percent standard. Box checked and problem solved!

Still, there are a few green sprigs of progress sprouting in the Valley. Kudos to 500 Startups, for example, which recently announced a new Angel List syndicate to fund women entrepreneurs. .

Olivia Herriford, for one, still holds out hope. Now the assistant director at the Mid-Pacific Information & Communication Technologies Center at City College of San Francisco, Herriford envisions a brighter future for tech women. So maybe it behooves the rest of us to adopt an optimistic view.

And offer some potential solutions. If you don’t intend to shut up – and as a writer I don’t – then those of us in the peanut gallery are obligated put up.

So I will.

Right after a few disclaimers.

(1) I claim no special expertise on gender issues, especially since Facebook just proclaimed the existence of over 50 different gender classifications. Really, who knew?

(2) It is much easier for guys to be flamethrowers. The most outspoken panelist at “Hacking Gender” was Wadhwa. Women who are equally caustic are almost certain to be labeled with the b-word. Or worse.


Lots of talk about this. Lots of research. Lots of handwringing. Some action on the local level and recognition on the national level. Time to think bigger.

(1) Put together a serious pool of money.

Let’s say $50 million per year. Big money in most circles, but the major tech companies could scrounge it up from the loose change under their leather sofa cushions.

It’s not much to ask. Especially after Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel successfully petitioned the Labor Department in 2012, enabling them to skirt the rule requiring disclosure of employee demographic statistics.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, The Fearful Five claimed disclosing statistics relating to race and gender would cause them “competitive harm.”


It’s hard to say whether the petition from the tech giants or the granting of said petition by the government was more disgraceful. Let’s call it a draw.

(2) Recruit STEM Girls like basketball coaches recruit star athletes.

Hire a group of recruiters to scour the country to identify talented 8, 10, 12, and 14-year old girls who are interested in STEM. If you’re an exceptional 10-year-old girl basketball player from Missouri or Alabama, Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer knows your name. And probably your favorite breakfast cereal. Select 100 STEM Girls every year.

(3) Make STEM Girls Cool

Sure, it’s fine and dandy to take girls to museums and zoos, as many local STEM programs do.

Better to take them to Disneyland. Or to meet their favorite TV and movie stars in Hollywood. Or to talk math with Danica McKellar and sit in a race car with Danica Patrick.

Every successful sports team gets a White House welcome, so take STEM Girls to DC to meet Michelle Obama. Give STEM Girls a new car when they get their drivers license. Get local papers and national magazines to write them up in the same way jocks are publicized – a January ESPN article profiled fourth grader Jaden Newman, a 9-year-old girl who is lighting it up against Florida high school boys. Hire filmmakers to shoot documentaries about STEM Girls.

When STEM Girls are the envy of their classmates, the pipeline problem will begin to disappear.


Since we’re getting ready to present to angels and VCs, I’ve been researching firms to find partners who are suitable matches for ExpertOpinions.

VC web sites are enlightening. For all sorts of reasons. In many cases, you’ll see a group photo. Often, it looks like a page from an all-boys school yearbook.

If VC firms were kicking ass, it would be easier for them to justify the absence of women partners. But as I mentioned in a previous column, the Harvard Business Review reported in 2013 that most VC firms since 1999 have struggled just to break even. Many investors in VC funds would be better off buying savings bonds.

Diversity would be good for gender equality. It almost certainly would improve the bottom line at VC firms as well. Women partners bring a broader perspective – no pun intended, I swear to God, wherever She may be — in evaluating start-ups. And female VCs are more likely to champion the cause of women start-up founders.

So let’s encourage VC firms to do well by doing good.

Remember those old wanted posters at the post office? Take the group photos from the all or almost all-male VC firms and publicize them, with a screaming headline at the top of the page reading:


The wanted posters can be posted online and off, emblazoned on websites and tacked up on coffee house bulletin boards.

Harsh? Perhaps. Embarrassing? Probably.

Yet no more so than rubbing a dog’s nose in the mess it makes. Yeah, I know. That’s probably not a good way to discipline a Labrador or a German Shepherd.

But some people can be much harder to train than dogs.

More Sheer Madness…

Part 1, “Sheer Madness: Starting a business in your 60s is anything but glamorous.

Part 2, “Sheer Madness: Building a billion-dollar business or going bust.

Part 3, “Sheer Madness: With VCs get an intro or get lost.


Comments & Advice:
  1. Jim O'Brien says:

    Startupland is an unfamiliar land to me but you are doing a good job of exposing gender inequality and I find your column enlightening. It is disturbing to think that we still have not recognized the value of gender diversity and are still as a society not benefiting from the feminine perspective in all aspects of society, including business and politics.

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