Some questions have easy answers. ‘Why don’t more women hold positions of power in Silicon Valley?’ isn’t one of them.
Multi-faceted and, for many, incredibly personal, it’s the kind of query that leads to passionate debate.
The town hall on diversity and inclusion at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Tech was no different. The temperature was immediately cranked up when Jonathan Sposato, the chairman of PicMonkey and an angel investor, suggested that one factor driving tech’s gender problem is that “women don’t always support each other,” citing successful female business leaders who he said had complained to him about it.
He then contrasted the situation for women in tech with the broad support of African-Americans for civil rights, and the LGBT community’s support for same-sex marriage. “So that’s the difference, in civil rights, blacks coalesced, African-Americans – they hung together,” Sposato said, who then cited the LBGT community’s push for civil rights.
Taking the mic, OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles called the theory “bullshit.”
“In Silicon Valley today there is a sisterhood of women who are supporting each other, telling each other about board opportunities, giving each other business ideas,” she continued. “There’s a sisterhood.”
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While Quarles, who is in her 40s, sees this support system within her own generation, she believes its ties are only growing stronger. “What you see from the millennial population is the most exciting of all,” she said, choking up. “I’m seeing these young women come up, rise up.”
Part of the tide stems from women like Niniane Wang, a tech CEO, who are courageous enough to go on record about their experiences with sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. Such public disclosures put the industry “on notice,” said Quarles.
“I’ve worked in Wall Street for 20 years—talk about sexual harassment,” Quarles said. “You name it, it has happened to me… It has to stop.”
In prefacing his comments, Sposato, one of five guest speakers who helped to guide the town hall discussion, acknowledged that what he was about to say may be controversial. “I’m going to potentially make some of the people in the room a little uncomfortable,” he said. “But we’re all friends, and I’m going to go there, and we’re going to debate it because this is a town hall.”
For the full exchange, watch the above video.