Wherefore art thou, Silicon Valley?

Women in ITWhat’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

So, with a dose of cognitive dissonance do I pronounce this first day of the #BlogBus tour complete.  But the question remains: why Silicon Valley?  Why is it that this region in southern San Francisco excites and inspires innovation and investment in a manner not achieved elsewhere?  Why is it that creators, business leaders and venture capitalists all fall upon this place and call it home?  What makes it such a robust and enduring focus for technological innovation?

These are the questions that guide my blogger visit here this week.  And yet at the end of Day 1 I have to say I have as many new questions as answers.

I will make another post tomorrow on my appraisal of the processes and products arising from the Orange business day today.  But I feel compelled to articulate some disturbing ideas that have risen from an event I attended right at the end of the first day.

I finished the day at the 650-strong GeekyGirls Women in IT event as part of the Salesforce Dreamforce conference.  At the Palace Hotel, amidst gorgeous luxury, a panel of 6 US leaders discussed their life stories and experiences in IT to a rapt and entirely supportive audience.  Well. Entirely except for two: my friend Glenn le Santo, and me.

I don’t want to take anything away from the clearly successful lives of these women.  But it was clear to me that their life stories were lived and experienced under the auspices of inaccurate and frankly disturbing stereotypes.

But even as I reeled in horror at their apparent claims that only women sought a work/life balance (apparently men do not have such choices?), and that women are incapable of having a comfortable relationship with their managers as well as being able to ask for a raise or a promotion (sorry?  What???), I was acutely aware that my reaction to this utter nonsense may be culturally driven.  Perhaps, as an Australian woman who doesn’t suffer fools – at all – I am able to deal with both managers and peers in a manner that is different from my American counterparts?  Perhaps, as both US and UK women in the bar after the event articulated, Australian women are just more capable of calling ‘bull****’ when we see it?  And perhaps our non-gendered cultural practice of cutting down tall poppies is precisely the reason why we fail to develop the kind of ideal-driven community that dominates this region?

The idea troubles me deeply.  There was something really disturbing about the atmosphere in that Women-in-IT event tonight.  It felt almost like indoctrination.  Like fascism – complete with black corporate skirts and military boots, and tempered with long, gold chain necklaces – dressed up as feminism. It felt like I was at a propaganda camp, only I was not sure if I was on the ‘right’ side.  These women may or may not have created a non-existent problem, and then bravely and proudly battled it, fending off what they indicated were hideous conditions, and finding comfort in Us Magazine on weekends (Yes, really. I know.  Hideous.), but they have completely bought in to their own hype.  They genuinely believe their stories of a form of patriarchal discourse that simply doesn’t exist – at least as I see it.

Now before I go any further at all, I’m not in any way denying that patriarchal discourses exist.  It’s just that the characteristics of a male dominated environment simply don’t manifest in the manner described at this event.  Or they don’t in Australia anyway.  And they didn’t in the UK either, from my experience there.

Again, I wonder if this fantasy of A Woman’s Struggle is precisely the ammunition needed to fire the spirit of women in this area and drive them to succeed in the competitive and opportunity-rich environment of Silicon Valley?  This battle, however unrealistic or even insulting to men, is what binds them together, and what provides them with the motivation and the inspiration to effect change in their own lives and the lives of other women around them.  They are champions of a war, if not of their own creation, then at least of their own perception. But champions they are.  They demand respect, and (for the most part) they are recognised as great warriors of the American dream – across the nation, but in Silicon Valley particularly.

I wonder if this is what I have previously described as ‘necessary propaganda’? That is, the publication and propagation of ideals and battles that are at the very least, an exaggeration of reality, in order to boost confidence in investment, in risk-taking, and in leadership.

Again, I must emphasise I do not question the quality of the women on this panel.  I do not contest their worthiness as successful women role models of the IT sector in Silicon Valley, and indeed elsewhere in the US.  But I believe they have been successful not because they have battled the mighty windmill of male dominance.  I believe they have succeeded because they worked hard, and because they had the support of peers, and the individual drive to achieve.  But perhaps this sheer effort and support is insufficient to inspire the same drive in other women?  Perhaps this ‘necessary propaganda’ is required to light the fire of inspiration in future tech leaders?

A sobering thought.

And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

I cannot change a culture with words alone. Yet, as a colleague in the bar said in reflection on the evening, without those words, no change will ever happen. I hope that women can focus their attention where real prejudices and inequalities remain, without resorting to reinforcing negative stereotypes.  And I hope it may be possible so to do, without losing that profound idealism which pervades this centre of tech innovation.

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