What We Learned 2014: Tech needs to fix its sexism problem

Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation isn’t worth emulating if it’s shutting out women

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was just one major Silicon Valley leader to make an embarrassing misstep on gender equality this year (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty)

An embarrassing contagion swept Silicon Valley this year, afflicting the C-suites of the technology sector’s most-watched companies: foot-in-mouth disease. The highest-profile case involved Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, mere months after he was tapped to lead the struggling computer giant. In early October, speaking at a conference to celebrate women in computing, Nadella advised women to exercise the “superpower” of restraint in regards to asking for raises and to trust that their good karma would eventually yield rewards.

The 47-year-old executive’s gaffe suggests that tech’s bro culture isn’t restricted to the young libertarian entrepreneur cohort that’s dominating public perceptions of the sector these days. (In 2014, the poster child for that group was 38-year-old Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who wisecracked to GQ that his on-demand ride share app should be called “Boob-er,” since it gets him women on demand as well.) While executives at Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter had no problem refraining from saying anything particularly egregious, voluntary disclosures reveal that, on average, women hold just 16% of tech jobs at the four companies—while Hispanic and black employees make up just 6% of tech positions. The numbers are even more dismal among the executive ranks.

“Culture” is supposed to be at the heart of Silicon Valley’s success. It’s why tech companies spend millions of dollars building more engaging offices, with flashy floor plans seemingly drawn up before firms make their first sales. But this year’s spate of ill-advised remarks and the cavalier attitude toward inclusiveness displayed by so many executives suggest the tech sector has a very real diversity problem. Your culture isn’t worth trumpeting if it’s a chauvinist one.