March 24th, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Silicon Valley fetishizes a particular type of engineer — young, male, awkward, unattached. This fetish is so normalized in startup culture that it often goes unseen for what it is: the specific, narrow fantasy of venture capitalists, deployed to focus their investment and attention. The disproportionate success of a very few individuals who fit this image has led to a kind of shortcut logic or “pattern matching” which assumes that these outward traits themselves determine success.
Silicon Valley has built an architecture of compensation to distribute value, attention, and funding accordingly.
The focus on this particular type of founder or employee often goes uncritiqued, then, in terms of the stresses, conflicts, and inequities it creates in the startup environment, where there is always less celebrated, less visible, and often much less valued work to be done. Both men and women experience the negative impacts of a culture that fetishizes the simultaneous power and lack of responsibility of its “rock stars,” forcing coworkers to silently accommodate their behavior, often without equivalent support or compensation.
Contrary to the outsider assumption that Silicon Valley’s sexism manifests mainly in the traditional sexual harassment of women, Silicon Valley’s fetish for the awkward young engineer is unabashed, physical and often sexual.
A t-shirt sighted on a startup employee in downtown San Francisco reads “Who’s your data?”, at once figuring its wearer as male, sexually dominant, and unlike the “daddy” the data replaces, technical and nerdy – data as sexual dominance and vice versa. Technical and sexual dominance are made synonymous on the t-shirt in a way that is not unique to this particular company. An early ad for YCombinator read, “Larry and Sergey won’t respect you in the morning,” positing the young entrepreneur as submissive sexual partner to famous founders and invoking the shame of an ill-conceived one-night stand if he doesn’t found a startup: “They didn’t go to work for someone else’s company. They started their own. Why shouldn’t you?”
Mark Suster makes the desired romance between investor and entrepreneur even more clear: “Make sure when your investor agrees to write you a check you feel like someone beautiful at the altar,” Mark Suster writes in a blog post that encourages investors to “fall in love with entrepreneurs.” While Silicon Valley startups rarely make the connection between power, desirability and technical skill as explicitly as the “Who’s your data?” t-shirt does, the conflation of them is so common it often goes unremarked as anything unusual. If considered at all, the assumption seems to be that because the bodies being fetishized and “fallen in love with” are male, it’s not harassment.
Even at the highest level, the way that Silicon Valley investors define entrepreneurial talent is often not as a matter of business skill. Chamath Palihapitiya argues that having no experience at all is preferable for young hackers, like the ideally cheeky “young rogue hacker who attacked Facebook several times before it hired him.” Instead, entrepreneurial talent is depicted as a function of masculine physical characteristics and even physical force.