New book

Silicon Valley’s Caste System: Geek Capital, Glass Walls, and Barriers to Employment


June 16, 2022

In January 21 of 2016, Bloomberg Businessweek published a cover story titled “Why Doesn’t Silicon Valley Hire Black Coders”. Vauhini Vara followed a cohort of Black computer science students enrolled at Howard University located in Washington, D.C., one of the oldest historically Black universities in the United States. Even after a Google engineer upgrades the curriculum, students in this cohort are denied opportunities to work full time in Silicon Valley. Vara informs the reader that “although 20 percent of all black computer science graduates attend a historically black school … the Valley wasn’t looking for those candidates”.

In this same year, Reveal’s Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed the diversity reports of Silicon Valley technology firms. It found that Black employees made up no more than 2 percent of the 23 companies, who had released their figures. Eight of the twenty-three companies that provided their demographics including Google, Twitter, Square and 23andMe, did not report a single Black woman in an executive role. In a separate study conducted by The Ascend Foundation, a pan-Asian foundation, found that the number of Black and Latinx women had actually declined between 2014 and 2017.

My new book Geek Girls is the first book to provide a comparative analysis of the career trajectories of technology workers of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and includes cisgender, transgender and gender-fluid women engineers. Drawing on 87 interviews with women and men in the technology sector, it illuminates the struggles that Black, Black Latinx and working-class women of diverse backgrounds negotiate in what I call “Silicon Valley’s caste system”.

Despite a robust body of sociological research on labor market discrimination and the “New Economy”, the occupational experiences of Black, Black Latinx women and gender-fluid or LGBTQ women have been neglected in much of the sociological research on women employed in the technology industry. When compared to the sociological research on migrant information technology workers (often called the IT caste) and on white and Asian Indian women in the technology industry, the career trajectories of technically skilled Black, Latinx and LGBTQ women remain understudied.

Geek Girls synthesizes data from blogs, memoirs, gender discrimination lawsuits, foundation reports, technology journalists and career trajectory interviews. In the book, I analyzed and compared the career trajectories and work experiences of women employed in Silicon Valley technology firms. I found that technically-skilled Black women described barriers to employment that differed from those reported by their non-Black peers.

In order to understand the opportunities and obstacles that women negotiated, I introduce two concepts: geek capital and glass walls.

Geek capital, a form of social and symbolic capital unrelated to merit, played a key role in whether women secured jobs as programmers, software engineers and coders. In my study, 40 percent of the White women and 90 percent of the Asian American and Asian Indian women possessed it. Geek capital can be seen in the ways that women secured interviews and jobs by being referred by family members, friends and or classmates. They are offered a position after being socially referred to a decision-maker. Black women were less likely to possess geek capital. Black women who had earned degrees in computer science or engineering, often struggled to secure jobs compared to white women who had not earned degrees in computer science but rather in the arts, humanities and social sciences. In other words, “the pipeline mythology” obscured the current realities.

Glass walls is a second concept that I introduce to illuminate the mechanisms that sustain gender and racial inequality in Silicon Valley. This refers to barriers to employment that highly educated and technically skilled Black women encounter due to recruiting practices. These recruitment practices privilege non-meritocratic factors such as social connections. Glass walls block access to entry-level positions as well as horizontal mobility into full-time permanent positions for employees who are on short-term contracts. Like glass ceilings, glass walls are barriers that are often invisible to them until you hit them. Glass walls sort and stratify workers into a two-tier system in which some workers are hired on temporary contracts and treated as disposable.

Geek Girls ends with an analysis that introduces alternative pathways into careers in software engineering by introducing women who belonged to the first cohort of women who enrolled in all-women coding boot camps – skills-based 10 or 12 week accelerated engineering programs. I contribute a case study of the new ways that women who earned their degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences, secure jobs as software engineers in Silicon Valley technology firms, make a significant contribution to research on new mechanisms, new credentials and emerging trends in the technology labor market.

Read more

France Winddance Twine. Geek Girls: Inequality and Opportunity in Silicon Valley. New York University Press 2022.

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