Silicon Valley Girls: Growing Up Female Among the Bay Area's Elite
As young women growing up in Silicon Valley, my classmates and I never struggled with discrimination. Our privileged upbringing shielded us from inequality.
Image: CSA-Archive/Getty Images
As a teenage girl growing up in the midst of pre-Great Recession Silicon Valley to parents who work in science and technology, I had no idea that there was gender discrimination, especially for women of color, in the tech industry. And, as I recently found out, my fellow female high school classmates didn't either.
By the time my classmates from the graduating years of 2002 to 2012 began working full-time at companies like Facebook and Google, they were all aware that sexism existed in Silicon Valley. They learned about it from panel discussions about women in STEM and from stories about the wage gap and sexual harassment in the newspaper. But while a few of them admitted to instances of unwanted sexual advances, worries about the pay gap, and the difficulties of finding a female mentor, most of them felt that they were unaffected by the obstacles presented to women in the tech industry. Their confidence both in themselves and in the meritocratic reputation of Silicon Valley was unwaning.
A privileged upbringing with highly-educated parents—including mothers—working in Silicon Valley gave us advantages that most other young girls (or boys) interested in STEM don't have. We were taught from childhood about our potential, not our limits, and we were immersed in Silicon Valley's latest developments in our daily lives. Having money as a kid in Silicon Valley buys you a lot of advantages that incrementally shield you from the effects of inequality in the region—while we were learning our third programming language on a brand new laptop in the school's computer science lab, other students in the same county didn't have wifi at home.
I was not allowed to have a real dog, but my father brought AIBO, the $2,000 Sony robotic dog, home for me to play with instead
We attended The Harker School in San Jose, a co-ed private school founded in 1893 and originally intended to be a feeder for nearby Stanford University, though it now sends formidable numbers of students to the University of Southern California each year, too. This year, annual high school tuition at Harker is $43,693—on par with other elite schools around the country, and only around $20,000 less than annual undergraduate tuition at Stanford itself. Pam Dickinson, the director of communication at Harker, told me that currently 18 to 20 percent of students are on financial aid (it was about 10 percent when I was a student). She said that 100 percent of the students graduate to attend four-year colleges and universities. This academic year, 50.5 percent of the students from preschool to grade 12 are female.
But that's not all that separates Harker from its peer schools on the rankings list. From the accounts of many of the alumnae I spoke to, what made our adolescence such a Silicon Valley utopia was that a majority of the students at my school were the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants who worked their way up to becoming venture capitalists, CEOs, doctors, engineers with graduate degrees—and yes, onto the Board of Trustees at Stanford University. My own father came into the US with $200 borrowed from his PhD supervisor and my mother, a former faculty member at China's top medical school, had to re-do her medical degree once she arrived in the country. Both were the first in their families to attend college. The meritocratic American Dream was real—at least in our Silicon Valley bubble.
"I just remember everyone always had the latest apps and phones and computers at Harker," my classmate Kelly Chen, a Wharton graduate, recalled. "We were early adopters of everything. Didn't we switch from Myspace to Facebook pretty early on too?"
One of my schoolmates always had the latest iPhone because her mother had helped design it. I was not allowed to have a real dog, but my father brought AIBO, the $2,000 Sony robotic dog, home for me to play with instead.
As the daughters of Silicon Valley's insiders, our access to both the latest technology and the tech industry itself effaced any signs of institutional discrimination while we were growing up. "Both my parents are electrical engineers," Jennie Xu, a senior at Duke University who is planning to attend medical school, told me. "I just always knew I had opportunities in science."
Her Harker classmate Ramya Rangan, who graduated as high school valedictorian and is now studying computer science at Harvard, agreed. "I wasn't aware of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley when I was in high school, because we were so focused on the opportunities we had," she said. "And we had a lot." Rangan was a National Siemens AP Award winner and president of the WiSTEM (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) club.
For the past 15 years, the science department at Harker has been headed by Anita Chetty. She told me that three out of four of the current computer science teachers are female. Six of 14 teachers in the science department are women, four of whom hold doctorates. "The Robotics club has also seen a heightened increase in female participation. Just a few years ago, the president was a female," Chetty added.
They're pushing for the glass ceiling, but they started above the floor
Of course, out of the 40 recent alumnae I interviewed, not all of them were interested in pursuing STEM fields in high school. But many mentioned that they were drawn back to Silicon Valley because it offered challenging problems and a culture of optimism. And with their elite degrees, family connections, and inner drive (cemented by a Silicon Valley-meets-immigrant-parents upbringing), my fellow alumnae—many of whom are women of color—weren't, for the most part, worried about inequality in the tech industry.
"I know terrible things happen because of sexism in Silicon Valley," Jaya Pareek, a product manager at online marketplace UpCounsel told me. "But—and this is going to sound callous—I don't care. I'm too busy pushing for what I want. It's just my personality."
A few of my fellow alumnae have experienced sexism in Silicon Valley. Isabella Liu, a 2002 graduate of Harker, has been seeking mentors for her first startup venture after business school. A man offered to get coffee with her in order to give her some advice. Liu was excited—searching for a mentor, as Sheryl Sandberg advises in Lean In, was harder than she thought it'd be. But the older man asked Liu, who is of Chinese descent, if she'd ever date Caucasian men. "I didn't know what I could have said, because he is respected in the industry," Liu told me. "And he was married." She still hasn't found a mentor.
But Liu's experience wasn't common among the women I talked to: Most of them admitted that they still believe, in their personal experience at least, that being a woman in Silicon Valley is not a disadvantage as long as they work hard and "lean in." They know that a woman makes 49 cents to a man's dollar in Silicon Valley and that sexual harassment goes unreported in offices across Menlo Park, but they haven't experienced these issues firsthand. They're pushing for the glass ceiling, but they started above the floor.
We reaped the benefits of the positive aspects of Silicon Valley, and we were able to ignore the negative aspects of living in Silicon Valley: the income disparity between next-door neighbors like Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, the racism, the sexism, the possibility that perhaps we won't grow up to solve the world's problems because we were part of them.
In 2013, one in seven children in the San Francisco Bay Area lived at or below the poverty line. According to the United States Census Bureau, the Palo Alto Unified School District had a 4.2 percent poverty rate while the Oakland Unified School District had a 27.9 percent poverty rate. "Poverty rates among school aged children are generally highest in Alameda and Santa Clara Counties [where Harker is located], and along the I-80 east west corridor," a research brief from the the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies reports.
A map showing the Bay Area, with Santa Clara highlighted
Cecilia Kang recently noted in the New York Times that one third of students in the US do not have internet access at home and have to work in libraries and fast-food restaurants. In contrast, my classmates and I used an online schoolwork calendar coded by a former student to check our daily assignments, school announcements, and schedules. We counted down the seconds until the bell rang in each class period using a widget coded by another student. While some students in Coachella, California depend on school buses equipped with free wifi to finish their homework, my classmates were taking AP Computer Science from a teacher who would later become a professor at Carnegie Mellon. My classmates drove German luxury cars and the occasional Ferrari. (According to current students there, these days you see more Teslas.)
At a school like Harker, we had the privilege of worrying about whether we were achieving our full potentials while rarely worrying about how our potentials could be limited by socioeconomic concerns, like paying for textbooks or even paying the fees to take and re-take the SAT exams. Both boys and girls at Harker felt empowered to dream a world of unlimited possibilities.
In his book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, an ethnography about the elite New England boarding school that he attended, Shamus Khan noted that St. Paul's framing itself as a meritocracy is a fallacy. "[I]f you believe that the best students in the United States do not come overwhelmingly from the already extremely rich—from families able to pay $40,000 a year for high school—then it is not a meritocracy," he observed.
Unlike St. Paul's, the majority of Harker's students are not of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. But as at St. Paul's, a Silicon Valley private school like Harker's meritocracy is inherently structured upon exclusivity. Both Harker girls and boys think they can grow up to run Silicon Valley. Some of their families already do.
"I'd love to have grown up here," a friend from college who now works at Google in Mountain View, told me over dinner. "Can you imagine what being a Silicon Valley teenager is like?" At the time, I didn't understand where his jealousy was coming from—he had an Ivy League degree and a job at Google, after all. But later that week, I visited a friend who lived in an estate in Monte Sereno that was so opulent that we—without a hint of tragedy at the time—dubbed it the "Jay Gatsby House" after reading the F. Scott Fitzgerald book in our sophomore year English class. By age 16, we were already living the American Dream.
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.