Silicon Valley is the global leader in technological wizardry, but it suffers from an image as a young, all-white, all-male club.
The success of social media startups like Facebook that appeared in recent years and grew their ranks by hiring young people created the notion that “young college dropouts” can “make it big in Silicon Valley,” said Stanford University‘s Vivec Wadhwa.
That image is contradicted though by entrepreneurs like Tesla’s Elon Musk – who, while not old, is not fresh out of college – and others like him who build successful long-term technologies.
But the “all white male” part of the image may take longer to change.
“They are all men,” said Wadhwa of entrepreneurs founding new companies in Silicon Valley and the technology scene.
The Silicon Valley Business Journal reports that in 2013, more than 90 percent of startup founders were men and 82 percent were white. And according to Catalyst, a non-profit organization that seeks to improve women’s employment opportunities, women hold only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.
“The reason why there are so few women in technology is because the deck has been stacked against women,” said Wadhwa.
The deck has also been stacked against typically disadvantaged communities, which is why Wadhwa calls California’s tech hub an “imperfect meritocracy,” because “certain groups are left out,” particularly women, African-Americans and Hispanics.”
“If you look at the African-American community – they were left out of a large part of the economic pie anyway because they tend to come from poorer communities that receive less education than they should and they are not given the encouragement that they should,” he said. “This is a general disadvantage that those communities have. It’s not only in technology. But they need to be uplifted without doubt.”
And yet, he argues that Silicon Valley has been “inclusive” in incorporating people from all over the world and looking “like the United Nations.”
Walking into the Google cafeteria or any other leading Silicon Valley company, “you see people from all over the place,” he said. “So much so that they serve Indian curries, Chinese food. They serve Brazilian food. They serve international foods here because it is an international club.”
Indians, in particular, have flourished in Silicon Valley.
“The fact that Indians come to Silicon Valley and succeed shows that by helping each other, as Indians did, by being ambitious, by being determined, you can break the glass ceilings – that any community can succeed,” Wadhwa said.
Well, maybe not any community. CEOs of some of Silicon Valley’s leading companies have come under fire for their recruiting practices. And Wadhwa chides them for that.
“Don’t pretend that you are a meritocracy in Silicon Valley,” he counseled. “Admit that there is a problem here. Then look at what the roots of the problem are and fix it.”
He said companies that diversify their working force are more likely to be more innovative.
“Silicon Valley is the most innovative … land on the planet,” he said. “It’s because it is diverse. Imagine if we increase diversity even more, imagine if we included the 50 percent of the population that’s being left out. It would be a lot more effective, productive, economical … a lot more magic would happen over here if we included people we are leaving out.”
That holds true for emerging tech sectors in Africa and Asia, said Wadhwa, where technologies are being developed by “certain segments of the population” and the “technology ecosystems are dominated by males,” particularly in countries like China and South Africa.
Fixing the problem has to start with the parents, said Wadhwa. In some parts of the developing world, parents prefer to spend their limited income to educate their sons, thereby neglecting their daughters’ education or dissuading them from entering male-dominated career paths.
“Parents have to now encourage their daughters to become scientists and engineers, to become computer programmers, to have the ambition to change the world,” he said. “It starts with Mom and Dad. We can’t just blame our schools. We can’t just blame our corporations.”
But they cannot do it alone. Wadhwa suggests that schools need to “reprogram” teachers so that they refrain from discriminating against students because of their gender or race. “We have to now increase awareness within the universities and the schools and then the workplace,” he said.