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A Feature, Not a Bug

Teary-eyed CEO apologies and internal investigations won’t cure Silicon Valley of being Silicon Valley

(Matt James/Getty Images)
(Matt James/Getty Images)

There’s an old programmer cliché: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” It plays on the idea that developers scoff at design flaws by declaring them deliberate. The expression has taken on a second life as a pundit catchphrase, a winking shorthand to clarify when something is a character trait rather than aberrant behavior. To a Fox News columnist, when it comes to liberalism, hysteria is “not a bug, it’s a feature.” Recently, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman tweeted that Trump’s violation of longstanding American values is “a feature, not a bug” of his administration. Sure. It’s one of those memes that was never funny but is occasionally apt, and before it gets too tired, I’ll play: In Silicon Valley, sexism is not a bug to be overwritten and stamped out. It’s a feature, baked into the history, the present, and the future of the industry.

Last week, Uber senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal was asked to resign after news surfaced that he’d been accused of sexual harassment as an executive at Google. Perhaps, in a different news cycle, Singhal’s ignominy could’ve been apologized away as an isolated error, a bug. But the timing was bad: Writer and former Uber engineer Susan Fowler had published a blog post describing Uber’s cartoonishly sexist corporate culture about a week prior to the Singhal news, and it had provoked a conversation about Uber’s treatment of women. #DeleteUber is already on its second or third whirl around social media this year, each time for a separate reason. And what is likely far more important to CEO Travis Kalanick than a user protest is the fact that even investors are writing chagrined Medium posts.

Uber is not an outlier in its industry. Sexism has been a problem in Silicon Valley for decades. It is not improving. A 2016 survey of more than 200 professional women working in Silicon Valley found that 60 percent of those surveyed have received unwanted sexual advances, while 84 percent of these women had been told they were too aggressive in the workplace. Fowler’s account is one of many stories about mistreatment in the Valley. Tesla engineer AJ Vandermeyden filed a lawsuit against her employer last fall and is now openly speaking about the gender discrimination she felt she faced at Elon Musk’s company. On February 13, Tannen Campbell filed a gender discrimination complaint against her former employer, troubled augmented-reality startup Magic Leap.

More than any other company, though, Uber is in full-blown damage-control mode. Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, who has advocated for the company in the past, was hired by the company to conduct an investigation into sexism charges, with the help of board member Arianna Huffington. One optimistic reading of Uber’s mess is that it is a turning point, that the transit company’s crisis will spur Silicon Valley to confront its longstanding, systemic sexism problem. “This could be the start of a deep, long-term and thorough effort to remake a culture that has long sidelined women — not just at Uber but across the tech business, too,” Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times last week, in a piece declaring the Uber debacle a “watershed” moment. The idea that this could be true is enormously appealing, but it is at odds with the history of Silicon Valley culture. Here’s another headline from a legacy publication about Uber and sexism: “Dismantling Tech’s Sexist Culture Isn’t Easy, But Deleting Uber Sure Is.”

It’s from a totally separate scandal. In 2014.

A software engineer named Kelly Ellis, a onetime Google employee, left the company in 2014 after accusing superiors of recurring harassment. She has thoughts about the Singhal situation. “Google invests in and partners with Uber. These guys just get shuffled around with zero regard for the women in our industry,” she tweeted.

Ellis is right. Bad boys don’t get banished in the Valley. Frequently, they get rubber-roomed — or promoted.

The story of Mark Hurd tells us more about the future of Kalanick and Uber than 5,000 furious Medium posts from disgruntled employees ever could. Hurd was the chairman of the board, CEO, and president of Hewlett-Packard. In 2010, he was accused of sexual harassment and found to be in violation of HP’s standards of business conduct. But the transgression didn’t exactly ruin his career. He did resign from HP, but then he was quickly hired as president of Oracle; he’s now the CEO there. In 2016, his total compensation, including stock options and other benefits, was $41.1 million.

Then there is Tinder cofounder Justin Mateen, who had it slightly worse when he was embroiled in a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit filed by his ex-girlfriend Whitney Wolfe. He was suspended and then he eventually resigned from the company. His fate? Oh, now he’s an angel investor. When developer Julie Ann Horvath resigned from GitHub and described a company culture that mistreated women, GitHub cofounder Tom Preston-Werner did eventually resign following an investigation. (The 2014 investigation “found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment,” according to Preston-Werner’s fellow cofounder Chris Wanstrath.) Preston-Werner is … also now an angel investor.

And, of course, Kalanick has been directly accused of making sexist comments only in interviews, not in the workplace, so perhaps that means his situation is more comparable to former Tinder CEO Sean Rad, who was forced to resign as CEO following the Wolfe scandal. Rad had to wait five whole months before being reinstated as CEO of Tinder. In the unlikely event he’s put in a timeout, maybe Kalanick can plan a long sabbatical to Bali.

This is not unique to Silicon Valley, of course. The current president of the United States has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. This year’s Best Actor Oscar winner, Casey Affleck, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. Domestic violence against women doesn’t sideline professional athletes; accusations of child rape doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose your film career. A class-action lawsuit recently filed against the parent company of Kay and Jared jewelers alleges that roughly 250 former employees “were routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses.”

Silicon Valley’s systemic sexism is not notable because it is unique but because this is supposed to be the industry undoing (or “disrupting”) the staid, backward-thinking business practices of the past. And yet it is flamboyantly undiverse. Gender discrimination in Silicon Valley intersects with another dire tech culture problem: racial discrimination. “I wish that tech leaders would just be honest and admit that they’ve made tech culture so exclusive and toxic,” Kaya Thomas, a black developer, wrote in response to a Wall Street Journal piece on how Facebook blamed its lack of diversity on lack of qualified talent. “Ignoring the fact that underrepresented talent exists shows me that they don’t care about diversity and they don’t want us working in tech.”

These problems are deeply connected; they both stem from a culture built by white men, run by white men, designed for white men. (Although Hispanic and Asian men have a strong presence in the Valley, the majority of executive positions are held by white males.)

A recent New York magazine piece detailed how, often, it is easier for established white women working within tech to speak up. “Fowler’s story, like [former GitHub employee Julie Ann] Horvath’s, comes with implicit privilege. Both women were, fortunately, able to speak out without completely derailing their careers,” Madison Malone Kircher wrote.

I called Thomas to ask if she thinks Silicon Valley is on the precipice of progress. “I don’t think this is going to cause some big, huge change, especially because of how people accept and normalize a weak apology like the one Travis [Kalanick] gave. The fact that people were like, OK, he apologized — that doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

“We need to see whose stories get championed and supported,” Thomas said, noting that many women of color have spoken out against racial and gender discrimination in the Valley before with minimal consequences. Designer Amélie Lamont and digital strategist Stephanie Duncker both wrote about both racism and sexism during their stints at Squarespace a year ago, revelations that briefly stirred Twitter but instigated no lasting change. Chia Hong’s gender-and-race-discrimination lawsuit against Facebook barely made a blip.

“I don’t want to lie to other young people coming into the industry. We can’t be dishonest and say things are changing,” she said.

Uber is going to survive this bout of umbrage. It may not necessarily be successful in the long run — remember, it’s not profitable — but if Uber crumbles, it will not be because people are mad about gender discrimination. Companies face no real existential threat from bad press about sexism. Or racism. They face existential threats from sinking bottom lines, from failure to grow, from missing projections. Nike was caught using child labor. Some of Apple’s workers struggle under miserable conditions; at one Foxconn plant, several have died by suicide.

It is substantially easier to diagnose ills than to treat them, and I do not want to sound hopeless. To suggest that positive change is impossible is nearly as silly as suggesting that Uber’s current crisis will serve as a breaking point that inspires the powerful into moral action. Change is possible. But it is wiser, I think, to look at history for signs of what might work rather than to accept desperate moves of executives awash in scandal as promises of progress. When cultural structures have upended themselves to become more equal in the past, it has never been because business leaders and executives reckoned with inequality and demanded change from the top. Social change has often arrived as a result of labored, excruciating organizing that culminates in unpopular laws. How many companies have had ethical awakenings and decided to pay men and women the same amount? Change does not come from internal investigations and teary-eyed apologies. The people in power will hold onto their advantages unless they are compelled by an outside force to give them up.

The #DeleteUber consumer protests certainly grabbed the company’s attention, but boycotts would have to be far larger and more sustained to scare Uber and its ilk into anything beyond scrambling, ameliorative PR moves. Again, Uber is not profitable. Like many other Silicon Valley startups, it mostly gets money from investors, not from its users. As Thomas pointed out during our phone call, this means a boycott is a less effective tactic than it would be on a traditional company relying on consumer funds to stay in business. Shareholders don’t like bad press, but their role is to care about money, not morality. Perhaps if women win even some of the ongoing gender discrimination and harassment cases taking place in Silicon Valley, the fear of legal retribution could deter some of its systemic sexism. Courtroom defeats are harder to wink away with pledges to be better. But of course, first we need courtroom defeats — and those may be hard to come by. In a recent high-profile gender discrimination case in tech, former Kleiner Perkins junior investing partner Ellen Pao lost.

“If you expect things to change but keep the same people in power, things are not going to change,” Thomas told me.

“I really don’t think it was a very big deal to us who sits at a table or who does not,” Kleiner Perkins senior partner Ted Schlein testified during the trial. Schlein still works at Kleiner Perkins.

Here’s a new joke. It’s even less funny than the bug vs. feature line. How many male CEOs does it take to change Silicon Valley? There’s no punch line. But go ahead and laugh.