Want Gender Equality? Silicon Valley Should Look to Sweden

Summer is supposed to be a relaxing season of brunches, BBQs, and beach getaways. But the past several weeks in Silicon Valley have been anything but chill.

In bombshell reports published by The Information and The New York Times in late June, dozens of women in tech came forward with allegations of sexual harassment perpetrated by male investors.

 

Just a Few Bad Apples?

CHINA-WEF

Some have unsurprisingly wanted to dismiss these incidents as the inappropriate behavior of a few bad apples. But Katie Benner, The Times reporter who broke the story about several of the accusations, refutes that characterization.

In her article, Benner writes:

“The new accounts underscore how sexual harassment in the tech start-up ecosystem goes beyond one firm and is pervasive and ingrained. Now their speaking out suggests a cultural shift in Silicon Valley, where such predatory behavior had often been murmured about but rarely exposed.”

In a follow-up piece published by The Times in early July, Benner paints an even darker picture:

“It felt like I had flipped over a healthy-looking log to find decay and bugs underneath. The story wasn’t just one man abusing his power; it was an entire problematic culture.”

 

A Feature, Not a Bug

Although she’s been among the most visible, Benner is certainly not the first writer to draw attention to Silicon Valley’s “problematic culture.”

Back in March — before any of these allegations against VCs had come to light and the sexism spotlight was still focused squarely on Uber — Katie Knibbs tackled the issue in The Ringer.

Calling out what she describes as “Silicon Valley’s systemic sexism,” Knibbs writes:

“There’s an old programmer cliché: ‘It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.’ It plays on the idea that developers scoff at design flaws by declaring them deliberate. The expression has taken on a second life as a pundit catchphrase, a winking shorthand to clarify when something is a character trait rather than aberrant behavior...It’s one of those memes that was never funny but is occasionally apt, and before it gets too tired, I’ll play: In Silicon Valley, sexism is not a bug to be overwritten and stamped out. It’s a feature, baked into the history, the present, and the future of the industry.”

 

The Fix

If you are an individual (of any gender) who is part of the tech industry and accepts the premise outlined above - that sexism is “systemic” and reflects a “problematic culture” in Silicon Valley - your next thought is probably: How can we fix this?

In the aftermath of these recent allegations, many smart people have put forth potential solutions, including:

Having been part of the tech industry for the past seven years, I also have a few suggestions of my own, which are largely the result of an unexpected journey from San Francisco to Stockholm.

 

From Silicon Valley to Scandinavia

The journey began in 2011 when I relocated from Washington, DC to the Bay Area to seek funding for BeCouply, the startup I co-founded the year before.

Thankfully, I did not encounter any sexual harassment from VCs while raising money. In fact, with investors like Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein (who are known for advocating for diversity and inclusion) leading our initial round, my experience was one in which I felt explicitly welcomed and supported as a female founder. And I am profoundly grateful for that.

But, throughout my time in the industry — including stints at larger tech companies like Google — I have still experienced my share of subtle gender discrimination, unwanted sexual attention (especially at tech events), and other run-ins with Silicon Valley’s “bro culture.”

I noticed a shift, however, when I took a new position earlier this year at Aevy.

Aevy offers an online database of top developers, designers, data scientists, and product managers to help both startups and larger tech companies find the best people to join their teams.

It’s a solid product with impressive traction (including big-name customers like Google, Quantcast, and Instacart). But what’s most relevant to this discussion is that the startup was founded by two Swedes and is headquartered in Stockholm.

 

Europe’s Tech Capital

What comes to mind when I mention Sweden? Perhaps watching the Swedish Chef character on The Muppets, shopping at IKEA, or eating Swedish meatballs and Swedish Fish candy?

If so, I can’t totally blame you. After all, the meatballs are delicious. But you should know that the Nordic country also has a flourishing tech industry.

In June 2015, an article from The Telegraph heralded Sweden as the “startup capital of Europe” and “poster child of European innovation.”

Citing a report by investment firm Atomico, The Telegraph reports"

“The Scandinavian country is the second most prolific tech hub in the world on a per capita basis, producing 6.3 billion-dollar companies per million people, compared to Silicon Valley’s 8.1.”

What factors are responsible for such success?

As The Telegraph article explains:

“...it is an offshoot of the reigning axiom of Swedish culture, known as Jantelagen, or the law of Jante, a set of rules laid out in a 1933 novel that prioritise the collective over the individual and promote humility over hierarchy...

“These ideals are also the driving force behind public policies that permit a high quality of life and allow entrepreneurship to thrive. Sweden has among the highest female and maternal employment rates in the EU because of generous paternity leave laws, equality incentives and readily-available affordable childcare.”

 

Goodbye, Discrimination. Hello, Equality.

Jobs for women engineers in companies that care about you.

Jobs for women engineers in companies that care about you.

Hopefully by this point, the journey I referenced earlier is starting to make more sense.

As a woman in the tech industry in Silicon Valley for a half dozen or so years, I experienced subtle forms of gender discrimination and unwanted sexual attention. Then I started working for a Stockholm-based tech company and no longer encountered this behavior.

And it’s not just the lack of “bro culture” but the presence of women and explicit support for gender equality that I’ve noticed at Aevy.

25% of our team is female (which is a bit low by Swedish standards but high compared to most Silicon Valley companies), and one of our five board members is female (Marta Sjögren of Northzone Ventures, which is a major stakeholder in Spotify and also an investor in Aevy).

When I arrived at the Stockholm office, I immediately noticed that the office walls, which feature photos of tech giants, included female founders like Y Combinator’s Jessica Livingston alongside Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.

Support for increasing diversity in tech is also baked into the product. By making it easy for companies to actively search for qualified candidates and focusing on the actual code they’ve committed via GitHub or design examples they’ve shared on Dribble rather than referrals or common interests, Aevy helps eliminate the “not enough women applied” excuse and “cultural fit” biases currently plaguing the tech industry.

 

Is This Unique to Aevy?

How do I know these positive outcomes are connected to the company being Swedish and not just a result of Aevy’s particular founders and team members?

Well, it’s hard to ever know something like that for certain. But, Sweden’s stellar record on gender issues creates a pretty convincing case.

Gender equality is “one of the cornerstones of Swedish society,” and the country has a designated Minister for Gender Equality to ensure the government is acting in accordance with this principle.

In the 10-year history of The Global Gender Gap Index, which measures “equality in the areas of economics, politics, education and health,” Sweden has never ranked lower than fourth place worldwide, including the most recent report released last year.

Sweden was also named the “best country in the world for women” earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and BAV Consulting.

 

Why Is Sweden the “Best Country” for Women?

The Swedish government has created a timeline highlighting milestones in the nation’s march toward gender equality, starting with prohibiting rape and abduction in the 1250s.

Jumping ahead to modern times, the key factors frequently cited as contributing to Sweden’s gender equality are:

Admittedly, some of these policies (such as education, taxation, and entitlement benefits) are pretty entrenched within the upper levels of government and would be difficult for Silicon Valley to incorporate into its solution to gender discrimination and sexual harassment, at least in the near term.

But others, especially in regard to parental leave, affordable childcare, and equal pay, are very much within the realm of tech companies.

 

Parental Leave

Sweden has the “most generous parental leave policy in the world.” Parents get 480 days of combined leave paid at 80% of their salaries. Ninety of the days are reserved specifically for fathers, and parents can use the days at any time until the child is eight years old.

In stark contrast, the United States is the “only industrialized country without guaranteed paid parental leave.”

Looking at Silicon Valley specifically, the tech industry is to be applauded for taking the lead in offering parental leave. But, as Tech Republic explains, “[T]he reality is, we still have a long way to go.

Writing for Slate, Christina Cauterucci adds:

“Recent increases in paid leave offered by a few big U.S. companies, mostly in the tech sector, have made it seem like business leaders were coming around to the idea that better family leave policies could help them attract the best employees—and keep them.
“A decade ago at Google, the attrition rate for new mothers was double that of the rest of the company’s workforce. After Google upped its maternity leave from three months to five months and paid it at 100 percent salary, the attrition rate dropped 50 percent. People applauded Netflix when, in 2015, it moved to give all employees unlimited time off during the first year after a birth or adoption...
“But for every employer that gets a PR boost from a shift toward a fair parental leave policy, there are dozens that offer inadequate paid leave or none at all.”

 

Access to Affordable Childcare

Around the same time that Sweden changed its maternity leave policy to gender-neutral parental leave, childcare policies were “reformed and expanded to facilitate for families with two working parents.” And today, as previously mentioned, childcare is guaranteed to all parents.

Childcare costs “are proportional to the parents’ income” and “the more children you have, the less you pay per child. For children between three and six, childcare is even free for up to 15 hours per week.”

Additionally, the Swedish government pays parents a “monthly child allowance (barnbidrag) until a child reaches the age of 16.” According to 2015 figures, “This allowance is SEK 1,050 per month per child, money parents can use to help with the costs of caring for their children.”

Considering that Silicon Valley companies offer employees a wide-range of perks from concierge services to run employees’ errands to on-site yoga classes and acupuncture, one would expect them to also lead the way with childcare benefits.

And yet, according to this BuzzFeed article, the opposite is true:

“Silicon Valley has still failed to prioritize helping employees with the most costly and logistically difficult part of raising young children: child care.
“Though Google — along with companies such as Cisco and Genentech — has long offered day care, the issue is so fraught that back in 2008, parents ‘wept openly’ during focus groups about Google raising the cost of day care above market rate…
“But in its child care offerings, Google is an outlier. Netflix told BuzzFeed News that it does not currently offer day care. BuzzFeed doesn't subsidize day care either.”

As the article concludes, “Tech companies may feed and coddle workers like they're children, but they don't cater to new parents quite so generously.”

 

Equal Pay

One final aspect of gender equality where Sweden can offer guidance to Silicon Valley is in regard to equal pay.

A March 2017 article published by Business Insider explains that Sweden’s Minister for Gender Equality Asa Regner has an “ongoing quest” to “ensure companies stick to Swedish law that mandates equal pay for equal work.”

The article continues:

“In 2008, the country signed the Swedish Discrimination Act, which requires companies of 25 or more employees to issues surveys every year analyzing pay differences between men and women. Companies with big differences between genders who don't take steps to close the gap risk paying fines.”
 

In the United States, it is “illegal to discourage employees from discussing their pay with each other,” and yet, “gag rules thrive in workplaces across the country.”

And that seems to include Silicon Valley. Despite a slogan of “Don’t be evil,” a Google employee says she “faced retaliation from management after compiling a spreadsheet of employee salaries” that “ultimately revealed some less than flattering things about pay at the company.

As an article from The Quartz at the time of the incident explains, “[K]eeping salaries secret has helped entrench pay gaps between genders and ethnicities.”

“An increasing number of tech companies are disclosing their gender pay gaps,” the article continues. “That’s the first step to fixing them.” (Sounds a bit like that Swedish Discrimination Act, ja?)

 

We Can Do It

In closing, I want to acknowledge that eliminating gender discrimination and sexual harassment in Silicon Valley will be hard, and the suggestions above regarding parental leave, affordable childcare, and equal pay are only part of the solution.

But every tech company seems to claim to want to disrupt the status quo and change the world. And if Sweden can manage to have a thriving tech industry while also ranking among the best in the world for gender equality, I don’t see why the same should be beyond Silicon Valley’s reach.


About the Author

Becky Cruze has worked in the tech industry for 7 years, including co-founding BeCouply. She is currently head of content at Aevy, a Swedish startup that offers an online database of top developers, designers, data scientists, and product managers to help both startups and larger tech companies find the best people to join their teams. You can follow her on Twitter at @beckyloveshugs and learn more at aevy.com.