Women of Silicon Valley: A safe haven for women in technology

 

During a summer internship at a small software company in Silicon Valley, Lea Coligado, then 19 years old, said she faced comments about how women don’t code because they are better at art. She also heard insinuations that women’s brains were just not wired to handle the algorithmic complexity that their male counterparts could. Instead of complimenting her code, she received comments about her clothes.

“I just was traumatized, simply put, after that internship, because at the time I was only a kid,” Coligado said.

Her experience inspired her to create Women of Silicon Valley, a photo and interview series featuring women and genderqueer technologists of Silicon Valley. (The term genderqueer refers to a person who does not identify with conventional gender distinctions, either identifying with neither, both, or a combination.) Women of Silicon Valley is modeled after Humans of New York, a series of interviews with people on the streets of New York, which currently has 18 million Facebook likes.

Because she was the only “non-dude” in her high school computer science class, Coligado was not initially interested in tech. She was drawn to it, however, because of the power of social impact it held.

“I don’t like tech for the tech,” she said. “I like it because it’s like a black box you can plug something in, and then the effect of any solution you come up with will be amplified so fast.”

Yet the summer before her junior year of college, showed her a much darker side of tech. Coligado’s response to that experience reflected that passion for social impact that drew her to computer science in the first place.

She started Women of Silicon Valley “because after that summer I had two choices: I could either burn out of tech really early, but validly, or I could try my best towards making it a better place and surround myself with a haven of really awesome women and genderqueer people.”

While tech symbolizes the future, many news stories highlight the hostile environment women and people of color face in the field. Sixty percent of women in tech reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances in the 2015 Elephant in the Valley Survey of over 200 women. Women of Silicon Valley was born out of and lives in that paradox of sexism in a futuristic field.

The series started by featuring mostly people from Stanford University since that was Coligado’s network at the time. Soon after its inception, which was around the same time as the highly publicized Ellen Pao gender bias trial, Women of Silicon Valley skyrocketed in popularity. Publications ranging from Vox to CNN to Buzzfeed wrote about Women of Silicon Valley. Melinda Gates and Chelsea Clinton tweeted in support of the page.

Today, Women of Silicon Valley has over 42,000 followers on Facebook and 24,000 followers on Medium. The series provides community and solace for women in tech and the young people who aspire to join them.

Onto the Bay

After college, Coligado started to work as a software engineer for Google. She said everything said for this story represents her views and not her company’s.

Once at Google, she integrated Women of Silicon Valley into the 20 percent program, which allows employees to spend 20 percent of their paid time working on diversity and inclusion initiatives.

After making Women of Silicon Valley a 20 percent project, the team quickly grew by three members: Tamar Nisbett, Jessica Sullivan, and Clarissa Bukhan. With new members came an expanded network for sourcing interviews and a streamlined process for publishing features.

As it grew to its current eight members, this process continued to advance. They now typically publish around two features per week, which are planned at least a month in advance. Beyond the traditional one-on-one interviews, there are photo series for Mother’s Day, Black History Month, Native American Heritage Month and more. Interviews are also sourced from conferences like VivaTech in Paris, which Coligado and another team member attended in May.

The Questions

The team often reaches out to potential features over email with a Google form containing the questionnaire. Like the range of people featured on the page, the interview questions have grown and changed.

“The original questions used to be kind of pessimistic,” said Coligado. “They’d be like ‘Why are you even staying in Silicon Valley?’ Because at that point that’s how I felt.”

The questions are more comprehensive now, covering both challenges and pride. These questions (and their subsequent answers) help portray tech truthfully: both the rewards and drawbacks. Each person featured is also asked “What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?” and “What three women would you recommend to be future features?” The emphasis on others in these last two questions encapsulates another central component of Women of Silicon Valley: community.

Unexpected Community

Women of Silicon Valley may not be able to solve all the problems that arise for women or people of color in tech, but one thing it has managed to do is establish communities. First with the followers, many of whom are women in tech or aspiring women in tech. One core principle of that community is honesty — Women of Silicon Valley articles and posts do not sugarcoat some of the worst parts of working in tech.

“A lot of what we showcase is struggles. We’re not like: ‘Tech is roses and butterflies and everything is fine.’ We’re very honest about the way it is,” said Coligado.

Another principle is to showcase people not often highlighted in tech. Danielle Forward is a product designer for Facebook and a Native American woman who was featured. For her, representation is crucial.

“It’s really important to hear stories that you can relate to and see yourself in,” she said. “Stories are what inspire us, stories help prove what’s possible. And I wanted people to know what’s possible for Native Americans, women of color, low-income women or any other way you could describe me.”

Representation is key for the followers, as the team learned after conducting a feedback survey last May. For many, it was the first time they saw someone who looked like them in a position they hoped to hold someday.

Although the eight team members have isolated roles (they usually meet over Google Hangout), it does provide a support network for them as well. Tamar Nisbett, who was one of the first few women to join the team, emphasized the importance of her relationships with the other women on the team.

“To actually have a group of women that I’m really close with now because we all were a part of Women of Silicon Valley together is something I wasn’t expecting, but was probably the most rewarding part of the whole experience,” she said.

A Balancing Act

Even with all these benefits that come from running Women of Silicon Valley, balancing working full-time and running the series is not always easy.

“It gets exhausting over time,” said Coligado.

Nisbett and Clarissa Bukhan, who is editor-in-chief of Women of Silicon Valley, both emphasized that while it can be a lot to juggle, the passion they have for the series makes it worth it.

Yet Coligado emphasized it is not just their team that has to perfect this balancing act.

“I feel like a lot of women or people of color in tech feel this way but if you are a woman or genderqueer person or person of color in tech, you are never just a computer scientist or a manager, your other job is going to be diversity and inclusion,” she said. “Tech is not at the level yet where I don’t have to worry about making tech a better place.”