Let’s Get Real: Sex & Power in Silicon Valley

In an industry and town which is so heavily male, in an industry where the TV show about it features an all male cast with the exception of a secretary, one has to wonder if she’s making a huge mistake by not Joan Holloway-the-second-ing it up. Sure, it’s 2014, but in many respects, the world I live in is Mad Men 2.0. I try not to think about gender as part of my day-to-day work, because the good lawd knows I’m not exactly BFFs with most women (I tend to get along better with men anyway), but ignoring the fact that I’m often the only woman in the room would be a disservice to my own take on impostor syndrome.

A good friend of mine recently joked that I should use my sex appeal to get ahead, in so many words. Not that he was suggesting I have sex appeal, more that it seems to be working for some women here. He pointed to the perky Amanda Rosenberg, 26, fresh-faced and bushy tailed and literally Googley Eyed (she works in marketing for Google Glass), who has stolen the heart or at least the genitals of one Sergey Brin, much to the delight of the Silicon Valley gossip rags.

It is not at all a surprise when you take high-powered, rich men who are often also brilliant and occasionally even attractive and pair them with young women who are, despite well-educated themselves, in a fight to use their own good looks for the short time they have them and find a suitable life partner. Why go after the cattle of young men who are as far down the rank as you are when you can go after a high-ranking engineer or, heck, the Google co-founder.

This harkens back to a discussion I had with a former coworker who had suggested in some fashion that all women should consider sleeping their way to the top. Perhaps that’s how it’s done. Even Marissa Mayer, brilliant as she is, perhaps got ahead while dating Brin back in the day. Based on her profiling of being calculating and data-driven, it would not be surprising if the relationship was a bit of a power play to get ahead. If it worked, in the end, what’s wrong with that?

Getting Ahead: What Really Goes on Behind Closed Doors?

Despite having incredibly low self esteem, I recognize that if my boyfriend can find my curves attractive then there must be others out there who can too. And I’ve never been comfortable with handling my own femininity, despite adoring fashion, I can never figure out what to wear to work in order to look business causal chic without stepping over the line. I either feel too — hot mess — or too skanky — or too all business. Amanda Rosenberg came up in conversation precisely because of this, as my friend recommended to me that maybe I dress “business slutty.” As the “main cheerleader” for Google Glass, Rosenberg (who also suffers from depression, like yours truly) is supposed to be a bit slutty. Her team’s job is to make Google Glass hip, fashionable, and mainstream. That’s not going to be achieved by an aspergian manchild showcasing the latest technology on his acne-ridden face. Boobs, for all intents and purposes, still sell.

Regardless of cup size, using your femininity to get ahead in Silicon Valley, or life in general, isn’t exactly new. Getting ahead doesn’t need to mean going after one of the world’s richest men who also happens to be married. It can also mean setting your sites on a high-performing colleague and pursuing them with all fervor (a dynamic power couple was formed before my very eyes shortly after the young female employee came on board and panther pursued her prize, while others surely were formed out of view, with tales of dalliances and who knows what going on behind closed doors.)

That is life in any industry (look at Wall Street), and one must certainly sort out the relationships formed in front of vs behind closed doors, but the fact remains that if you can find yourself in a power couple you’ll do more for your own life than pursuing a higher degree. Perhaps you want to take time off to have kids at some point in life — then it makes sense to chase after a man who is more established and clearly jumping rings on his own career ladder.

I don’t plan on pursuing any relationships in Silicon Valley other than the one I have with a man who is only peripherally involved in technology, but I sure find myself musing over what it would be like to play that game, and what my life would be like had I not found lifetime, committed love at 22 to a man who was then-unemployed with a smile that melted my heart, a welcome refreshment after dating a lawyer five years my elder who seemed to disrespect me for my lack of career clarity. And here I am, eight years later, with the same man who melted my heart, still having my heart melted, and paying for 60% of the rent and 100% of the cooking appliances.

But here I am, realizing that my own happiness does not tie into a fulfilling career but instead the boring life that I had ran away from in my great escape from central New Jersey. I think, though, I’d be more enthusiastic about my career if I felt like I had a future here. To get to the the top as a woman one must, well, I don’t know. Silicon Valley companies are so slanted male that most of them have just one female director on their boards, if even that.

 

There are so many other aspects of gender inequality in Silicon Valley that it seems silly to detail them all. Sure, more men are engineers by trade, thus inspiring the dearth of male leaders here versus female. The females who do get ahead seem to have to be extra – banned keyword – bossy, but achieve results and thus the respect of their colleagues. But if even Marisa Mayer was dating the co-founder of the hottest company on the planet as perhaps a strategic tactic to take over the world, what’s a girl to do who has equal parts no game and no open relationship to pursue such opportunities?

It isn’t even about sex, though everything is about sex, but it’s about how to be a female in a job which is about networking and making people remember you and your business. When you’re in marketing in tech you better be able to work a room filled with men. They don’t want to hear your pitch, they want you to be a woman and for them to be a man, whatever that means. But certainly if you can be Rosenberg wearing Google Glass along with a tight t-shirt, you can make it in this world.

Sure, there’s a big tinge of jealousy here. Clearly she did something to impress Google to get invited into their cult-of-a-business, and her brains likely even outsize her breast tissue. Her success comes largely to being the face of Glass, which, one can say, my semi-success comes largely from my own social media prowess (my boss likes to introduce me as someone who has more twitter followers than company x or company y), Rosenberg has just made her job out of blending her online persona with work. She’s been dubbed Glass’s largest cheerleader.

Perhaps that was the route I was meant to take. Not to work for Google, but to be a social media cheerleader of sorts. That is what I was doing until somehow I moseyed on over to cloud technology, which, how did this happen, I started marketing technology sold to other businesses. It was a smart transition in many ways — instead of working for companies where my job was to engage with users who had signed up for a free product and had nothing invested in the success of that product, I instead was promoting technology that, in order to be considered a success, had to actually be purchased annually by customers. The rationality in B2B was definitely a plus over the randomness of freemium consumer software. Anyway, I digress. We’re talking about tits and ass here, right?

Not every woman in Silicon Valley is going to sleep their way up the food pyramid, and there is nothing wrong with two people falling in love at the workplace versus anywhere else in the world. You live once and no matter how much money you have at the end of the day what matters is having someone you connect with who you can have enjoy life with. So in Silicon Valley you have rich men who stay with their wives, you have rich men who cheat on their wives, and you have rich men in open marriages who seem to be having the time of their lives sans the wives (Eric Schmidt, why not be you?)

There is all of that, all of that crazy, that maybe once would have been somewhat attractive as much as my youthful longing for fame. I don’t blame Rosenberg – she’s in her 20s, she has depression, she clearly feels the need for attention to be successful in life, and this has landed her a pretty awesome job at Google where she clearly makes good money and gets to date one of most interesting men in the world. That’s her life.

But these sorts of dalliances are not just in the highest ranks. They are happening all around and it makes for challenging communications in the workplace. I’ve been hit on and/or looked over head to toe in a way that clearly was checking me out by a handful of colleagues. I’m still convinced a former boss frequently placed my seat in front of his office (it happened at more than one office) because either he didn’t trust me and wanted to confirm I was working all the time, or he maybe wanted one of the only females in the company to be in view. Nothing personal. Who knows. A friend recently ended up breaking off her own marriage to be with her former married boss who, despite working at the same company, was an affair that began after she moved into a different department. They fit together well and I say good for them, but being with him, at least in the short term, could help her career as well. Even without anything improper, just having such a close connection to someone in a higher position (especially a man, since men have better connections to those at the top and those on the way to the top), then it might be a good career move as well. It can also be a very bad career move if things end badly but so far they seem happy as peaches.

I just look at all this big lump of Silicon Valley and wonder where I really fit in all of it. In many ways it’s much like any other industry on the planet, but in others it’s, well, vastly different. For starters, just look at the IQ levels. If you’re not one with a super high IQ then you need to find ways around this. IQ and politics and power plays and sex. It’s all there on the table and you can pick and choose your weapons to success, or give up trying.

 

 

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