Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Women in High-Tech: Disappointments for the class of '94, Stanford University

Stanford University is closely identified with the growth of high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. One 2011 study estimated, “That Stanford alumni and faculty have created 39,900 companies since the 1930s, which if gathered collectively into an independent nation, would constitute the world’s 10th largest economy.” In addition, “32 percent of alumni described themselves as an investor, early employee or a board member in a startup at some point in their careers.” The link between the university and enterprise is extraordinary. (  

In a recent article in the New York Times, “A Brand New World in which Men Ruled,” the journalist, Jodi Kantor, reports on the reunion of Stanford University alumni who graduated in 1994. These alumni she notes, “finished college precisely when and where the web was stirring to life, and it swept many of them up, transforming computer science and philosophy majors alike into dot-com founders, graduates with uncertain plans into early employees of Netscape, and their 20-year reunion weekend here in October into a miniature biography of the Internet.” (

She focuses in particular on one question. Why did many more men than women from this class become the entrepreneurs, founders, investors and early employees of enterprises connected to the Internet and the World Wide Web?  She suggests that this outcome is puzzling since the class of ’94 entered Stanford, “When the university had embarked on a bold diversity experiment, trying to dismantle old gender and racial barriers. The university retooled its curriculum and residential life to prepare its students for a more diverse future. No one was allowed to know the name of his or her freshman roommate before arriving on campus, to prevent prejudgments based on ethnic names. In seminars by day, students read texts by Aboriginal Australian writers; in the evenings, dorm counselors held programs on black and feminist issues. With no iPhones, text messages or even websites to distract them, students immersed themselves in long discussions about how sexism had expressed itself in their families back home or, in later years, about Condoleezza Rice’s policies as provost.”

But yet, as she goes on to note, “Instead of narrowing gender gaps, the technology industry created vast new ones, according to interviews with dozens of members of the class and a broad array of Silicon Valley and Stanford figures. ‘We were sitting on an oil boom, and the fact is that the women played a support role instead of walking away with billion-dollar businesses,’ said Kamy Wicoff, who founded a website for female writers. It was largely the men of the class who became the true creators, founding companies that changed behavior around the world and using the proceeds to fund new projects that extended their influence. Some of the women did well in technology, working at Google or Apple or hopping from one start-up adventure to the next. Few of them described experiencing the kinds of workplace abuses that have regularly cropped up among women in Silicon Valley.”

One question is why this happened, particularly when, as she notes, nearly half the class were women, “And plenty were adventurous and inventive, tinkerers and computer camp veterans who competed fiercely in engineering contests; one (woman) won mention in the school paper for creating a taco-eating machine.”

Kantor never quite alights upon an explanation. This is reportage not scholarship. But she does offer a series of probes that when taken together provide insights into this puzzling outcome. For example, Kantor notes that many of the women who were scientifically minded became physicians. They eschewed the uncertainty associated with Internet startups – after all most fail – for the more certain path of a medical career. “Throwing yourself into the exhausting marathon of medical training at least promised a lasting, meaningful career; throwing yourself into an equally demanding start-up was likely to yield nothing at all.” As one of her informants who enrolled in medical school notes, ‘The Internet was the Wild West. You could do anything there, but it was such an unpaved path.’”

The issue of risk, and the excitement it creates, is echoed in Kantor’s descriptions of two male members of the class of ’94, Peter Thiel and David Sacks. Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal, and Sacks was among its early employees. PayPal was a generative vehicle for entrepreneurship. Its early employees went on to found YouTube, LinkedIn, Telsa Motors, Yelp, Palantir Technologies, and SpaceX. Describing the reason he left a good job at Mckinsey Consulting to join Paypal, Sacks wrote of,  “The desire to live on the edge, to fight an epic battle, to experience in a very diluted way what previous generations must have felt as they prepared to go to war.”  “Unbridled capitalism,” he suggested, “has become the preferred vehicle for channeling their energy, intellect and aggression.”

Thiel was motivated by a strong libertarian philosophy and an impulse to fight central governments that exploit ordinary people. He originally envisioned PayPal “facilitating trade in currency for anyone with an Internet connection by enabling an instant transfer of funds from insecure currencies to more stable ones, such as U.S. dollars…. The very rich could always protect themselves by investing offshore. It's the poor and middle class, who get screwed. PayPal will give citizens worldwide more direct control over their currencies than they ever had before,’ Thiel predicted. ‘It will be nearly impossible for corrupt governments to steal wealth from their people through their old means because if they try, the people will switch to dollars or pounds or yen, in effect dumping the worthless local currency for something more secure.” (;wap2)

Sacks’ reference to war and Thiel’s battle with corrupt authority, draws our attention to the intense pleasures men may experience when belonging to what Shakespeare describes in Henry V, as a  “band of brothers.” (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”) This pleasure results from each band member’s intense dependence on the others in facing both danger and the prospect of overcoming it. This danger stimulates intimacy, as each member experiences the others’ struggles to draw on their innermost resources of courage and intelligence in the fight to survive. Indeed, PayPal faced a succession of significant challenges from competitors, regulators, the mafia, Russian hackers and the company that eventually bought them, Ebay.  Under these conditions of risk and danger, the pleasure men feel can be described as “homoerotic,” without being homosexual, as psychological and physical proximity stimulate feelings of love and gratitude. Sebastian Junger, the war correspondent, describes dangerous war zones as the occasions to experience, “a male Eden.” 

To be sure, business is decidedly not war, but the risks of an early start up can feel “existential” as people invest their time, energy, and standing in what are inherently fragile undertakings that in all likelihood will fail. Describing the “band of brothers” at PayPal, Thiel notes, “The kind of common ground shared by the early PayPal leaders is always the critical ingredient of the founding teams. You have these great friendships that were built over some period of time. Silicon Valley flows out of deep relationships that people have built. That’s the structural reality.”

One hypothesis that may shed some light on women’s experiences is that a band of brothers’ élan rests on excluding women. Were women present, the intimacy could too readily provoke sexual desire, distracting men from their shared goal, while inducing competition between them. This may be one reason why these early startups were built atop a “nerd culture,” in which women, while they are sex objects, are also unapproachable. Max Levchin, another PayPal co-founder, argued that the company had a hard time hiring women, “because PayPal was just a bunch of nerds! They never talked to women. So how were they supposed to interact with and hire them?” As Kantor goes on to write, “Lauri Schultheis said that when she interviewed to be PayPal’s office manager, and its first female employee — before even Mr. Sacks arrived — an engineer asked her, ‘Does this mean I have to stop looking at porn?’”

In nerd culture, men don’t compete directly for women but they do compete, sometimes viciously for status and resources. The wonderful movie “The Social Network.” a fictionalized account of how Mark Zuckerberg built Facebook, is suggestive here. Zuckerberg was ruthless in pursuing his goals. After all, three early collaborators sued him (in the film, and in real life).  But alas, for all his success, he cannot, at the end of the film, get the girl he wants. Sitting at his computer after this triumph, alone in a room, he tries over and over to “friend her” but gets no response. ( He remains a Nerd.

Finally, Kantor wonders if the university’s focus on diversity and identity group consciousness might have actually backfired. She writes, “Looking back years later, some alumni wondered aloud how well the thunderous debates about gender and race had really served them. At what turned out to be a formative hour for Silicon Valley, diversity had come to seem to them like a matter of overheated rhetorical contests instead of mutual compacts for success.”

This is a provocative idea. How could the concept of “diversity” as the framework for a curriculum, have held back women in general. If true, this would be most puzzling, since feminism’s project is to empower women. Let me propose the following hypothesis. Individual and collective aggression helps fuel an enterprise's start-up. There are so many obstacles to overcome. This is one reason that Sacks references, “aggression” along with “energy” and “intellect” as central features in the war for success. Yet, a diversity curriculum may devalue male aggression, perhaps by linking it too closely to the idea of “domination” particularly in sexual relationships. The curriculum may reinforce a climate of opinion in which male aggression becomes synonymous with male coercion. This reinforces the curriculum’s focus on, “forgotten people,” people who were and are victims of male coercion, such as slaves, minorities or women. This may be why efforts at many campuses to reshape the college curriculum along the lines of diversity first led to campus speech codes to protect minorities’ self-esteem, and recently, to codes of conduct for regulating a man’s sexual behavior when in bed with a woman. The model of sexual relatedness has become “informed consent” at the most intimate level, subject to a high level of control and regulation. 

If this hypothesis has merit, one can see how a diversity curriculum and the climate of opinion it sustains, can in fact make it more difficult for women to form what Kantor felicitously calls, “compacts for success” with men.  Such compacts, which help groups mobilize collective aggression to face and overcome obstacles, can thrive only under conditions of spontaneous give and take. But such spontaneity necessarily leads to misunderstandings and missteps -- for example from unwelcomed personal aggression -- as well as to moments of sublime cooperation.

Moreover, early startups facing limited resources and even more limited time cannot tolerate uneven performance. Writing about the period in which he joined PayPal, Sacks emphasized how the ideal of a meritocracy shaped the culture of the startup. “In the start-up crucible,” he wrote, “performing is all that matters.” In a meritocracy the desire for self-esteem has no standing per se. Instead, a person feels good about his or her worth only upon performing excellently. Perhaps the diversity curriculum soured women on the prospects of having to tolerate men’s aggression, with its inevitable assaults to self-esteem, based on one’s objective performance.

In addition, perhaps men too soured on this prospect. Indeed, both Thiel and Sacks, when students at Stanford wrote articles and a book attacking the diversity curriculum. In an op-ed piece they published in the Wall Street Journal while still sophomores, they wrote, that, “In Cultures Ideas and Values,  (CIV), the freshmen requirement that replaced western culture, students compare the U.S. bill of rights with Lee Iacocca’s Car-buyer bill of rights.” Plato and Aristotle are read, but more to contrast their logocentrism with the more holistic approach of Chief Seattle. Students not only read Shakespeare’s The Tempest but A Tempest written by 1960’s radical Aime Cosaire who tells the story from a slave perspective. These motifs have been a-historically combined in an end of quarter skit in which students dress in Roman togas and depict European Imperialism in the New World.”

I am sure this essay’s mocking tone masked a good deal of exaggeration.  Today, Sacks is apologetic for what in retrospect looks like inflammatory rhetoric, particularly when he impugned homosexuals. After all, his partner Thiel revealed only much later that he was in fact gay. As Kantor reports, “Mr. Sacks said in an email that he was “embarrassed by some of the things I wrote in college over 20 years ago, and I am sorry I wrote them,” adding that he was “horrified” by his old views on homosexuality and that he calls himself a supporter of gay rights and marriage equality. ‘These views do not represent who I am or what I believe today.’”

Nonetheless, it is helpful to plumb the meaning of Sacks and Thiel’s attack on the diversity curriculum rather than simply to dismiss it. It seems reasonable to suppose that they saw the curriculum, not unreasonably, as an attack on the legitimacy of male aggression. There are two grounds for their response, rational and emotional. A person can oppose the attack on male aggression, or at least term it one-sided, on rational grounds. For example, male aggression, when detached from violence, has been one among several sources of the West’s cultural and technological achievements. Freud called this “sublimation” and saw it as essential to building civilization. A diversity curriculum highlights the West’s history of violence and its victims to remind us that sublimation often failed and that male aggression has been destructive. But the rational response can in turn reference Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined,’ which proves definitively and statistically, that civilization’s advance has in fact led to a decline in violence.

But it also likely that 18 year-old men would react emotionally to the attack on male aggression insofar as they are unsettled psychologically about how to express their own sexual desires. The heterosexual “nerd” desires women, but does not know how to mobilize aggression to get their attention. One response is that they turn women into objects, for example looking at porn, which under certain conditions women may experience as assaultive.  For example, before he launched Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and his friends at Harvard created a website, “Facemash” through which a user, “could compare the attractiveness of two Harvard (women) students, voting with the click of a mouse. The site, which was open to the world and which used official Harvard headshots, went viral over email lists, nabbing 22,000 votes from over 450 people. Facemash managed to offend a lot of people, including Harvard University, seeing as Facemash violated all sorts of usage, privacy, and property codes.” (This story is retold in the movie-LH. ) “Mark was hauled before the Ad Board, Harvard College’s administrative board, and rumor had it around Kirkland House that he was almost thrown out of school.” (

This was a quintessentially juvenile prank, but is a fair representation of the sexual development of a certain kind of heterosexual male 18 years old, anti-authoritarian, brilliant, aggressive, who objectifies women, thus demeaning them, because he does not yet not know how to approach them directly. Looked at psychoanalytically, we can describe such young men as still operating at the tail-end of the “latency stage" where sexual desires are kept at bay partly by deflecting them through a focus on sports, tools, objects and same-sex relationships. In adulthood this leads to what Rosabeth Moss Kantor once called a “homosocial culture.” This is also the basis for the long-standing caricature of the engineer who keeps his pens visible in a “pocket protector” and, should he be an extrovert, “looks at your shoes, instead of his own.” 

Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple computer, reveals some of the features of this character structure in his autobiography, highlighting in particular the experience of being sexually awkward, almost a sexual misfit.  Reflecting on his experience beginning in 6th grade (he would be about 12, just on the doorstep of puberty) he writes, “I felt shunned by all these kids who suddenly and for no reason I could understand just couldn’t accept me anymore. I did electronics when a lot of others started hanging out and partying and drinking and going to, well I guess you call them make-out parties. This started in sixth grade and in many ways that shyness is still with me. Even today, I have friends who can just go up and talk to anybody. They’re suave and make friends so easily. Small talk, they can do that. I can’t possibly do that.”

Describing the time he met his first roommate in college he writes, “My roommate was Mike. The first thing I noticed when I walked into the dorm room with my bags was that he’d posted up about twenty foldout Playboy centerfolds on the walls. Wow, that was different! But I thought Mike was a neat guy, and I used to like listening to his stories…. He was very sexually advanced, I thought. Sometimes he’d tell me he wanted the room alone on certain nights and I knew why. I’d say, “Well okay.” I’d take this tape recorder, I had and a bunch of reel-to-reel tapes—Simon and Garfunkel- and I’d go over to Rich  Zenkere’s room and come back later.. He was really something.

There is a lovely directness and honesty to his writing as well as evocations of innocence; for example, in his use of the words, “wow,” “neat” “suave,”” make-out party” “really something.” Later he describes his meeting some hippies in Santa Cruz, California, noticing that, “One of them, a young girl, sitting on a bench, was breast feeding. Breast feeding! I’d never see anything like that in my life!”  But as he later recounts, “The sad thing was eventually even these hippies didn’t want to hang around me anymore. It made them uncomfortable that I didn’t do drugs.” I think it is fair to say that Wozniak, a self-described Nerd, is describing the perils of arrested sexual development which can seal a young man’s commitment to electronics, computers or any other suite of tools, while estranging him from women and sexuality.

To be sure, Wozniak is probably an extreme case. This may be one reason why he never struggled with Steve Jobs for primacy, and was content to focus on engineering, permanently leaving Apple computer in 1987.  Sacks, and the classmates who identified with him, had more moxie and drive. But one hypothesis is that they responded emotionally to the attack on male aggression because it amplified their own uncertainty about how to join sexual desire to the requisite aggression required to win a woman. In other words, they suffered from a deficit rather than a surplus of aggression.[1]

One question this line of thought raises is, what is, or should be, the model for men and women working together in high stakes, high-risk ventures. There is no doubt that such settings stimulate sexual feelings. It is in the nature of high-risk settings which are felt to be both dangerous and exciting, that men and women experience each other at their fullest, as every person reaches down into his or her innermost being, to both cope with the challenges of the work and bear the excitement associated with its potential success. It is certainly common enough that such settings can lead to sexual relations that are in their nature disruptive.  The question is whether we can learn to develop and live into work settings that provide such experiences without the finality of these disruptions.  In contradistinction to the ethic of political correctness we would not be controlling sexuality and the spontaneity it thrives on. Instead, we would allow for its efflorescence, while deflecting it from its traditional aim in sexual relations. Perhaps this requires a level of emotional maturity that our culture simply cannot support.

I want to propose one more hypothesis that helps illuminate the link between work and sexuality. I suggest that the metaphor we invoke, mostly unconsciously, for creativity in general, the one that is closest to our bodily experience, is in fact sexual relatedness. It is not simply or only that sexual relations “creates” children, in homosexual love it does not. But rather, under certain conditions it can give birth to something that is new in each of us. And that is the ultimate experience of creativity.This is also why artists are  inspired by muses, for example Picasso drew inspiration from six different women over the course of his artistic career.

There is a wonderful moment in a current TV show on Showtime called, “The Affair.” A middle aged man, Noah, with four children, and a married woman, Allison, who has recently lost her 4 year old son in a drowning accident, meet in a vacation setting, fall in love and have an intensely sexual relationship. The relationship is enormously disruptive to Noah’s family as he is grows emotionally apart from a wife he once loved while his children, sensing the estrangement, act irresponsibly, often in dangerous ways. After Noah and Allison appear to have broken off their relationship, (only to rejoin one another later in the series), Allison describes an encounter she had with Noah to a friend. She says, “This time, this moment in the very beginning when I was walking away from Noah and he grabbed my hand and he pulled me back to him and he just looked at me. He really just looked at me. It was the most perfect erotic moment of my life and I sometimes feel like everything that’s happened since is just us struggling each other trying to get back to that moment and." The visual flashback the viewer sees as she describes this moment adds to the sense of its psychological and erotic depth. The gesture of kissing is so simple but so direct. The erotic moment is a moment in which another discovers something true and deep in ourselves that we have in all likelihood lost sight of.

(To see the video, copy the address below into the address bar of your browser. Clicking on the address does not work.- LH)

Of course relations at work cannot approximate this experience. It would be far too disruptive. But this idealized experience can function as a north star reminding us of what it means to be “fully present” at work and stimulating us to engage with our teammates and the work before us in ways that engage our spontaneity and sexuality. This is a far better ideal I propose, than the model of relatedness we have inherited from political correctness.

[1] Thiel wrote the articles and book attacking the diversity curriculum before “he fully realized he was gay.” He tells a Fortune reporter, “In retrospect, I should have known, but I was somehow incredibly confused about it.” This suggests that he had a valence for joining a “band of brothers” for the libidinal feelings it stimulated. This may be one reason he was attracted to a  “cause” which promised to unite his aggressive and loving feelings in one gesture or moment. A heady mixture)

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