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31 Dec, 2020 11:41

With Big Tech notoriously male-dominated have these Russian women cracked the algorithm of success in Silicon Valley?

With Big Tech notoriously male-dominated have these Russian women cracked the algorithm of success in Silicon Valley?

On April 23, the popular Russian YouTuber Yury Dud released the video “How the World’s IT Capital Works.” It featured just eight Russian men. But what about the women who have made a name for themselves in Silicon Valley?

We heard from women based in Moscow about their experiences in tech but what do those who are tackling Silicon Valley think about the future for Russian women in the industry? Is the epicenter of the internet revolution a kinder place to women now?

With a background in media, Renata George’s first successful business was a franchise of publishing houses in which she sold to half of the regions of Russia. After 10 years of working in this industry she sold her business and became an angel investor, she started travelling to the US to help some of the companies she had invested in, “I was travelling very frequently, I lived four weeks in Silicon Valley and three weeks in Moscow.” This period lasted for more than a year until her business partner and co-investor suggested that she should stay in the US, “I realized that whatever we see through the screen of our computers or TVs about the United States and Silicon Valley [...] that’s not exactly how it works.”

Within her first year in the US, she was included in Forbes.com’s 2012 list of Top Women in Venture Capital and Angel Investing. She has since authored three business books, the latest being “Women Who Venture” published in 2019.

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George first began to pay attention to the place of women in venture capital in 2014, “I came from Europe with no understanding that women are treated in any way differently from men in the United States. It was never something that I had ever thought of.” With her mentor’s encouragement she began to investigate the problem of inequality and count how many women there were in venture capital who actually signed cheques and made decisions, “I turned to him and said what’s wrong with women in venture capital? I was absolutely naive at the time; I was like what is he talking about? I moved here, I got on Forbes, I raised a fund, I invested in companies — whatever companies I wanted to invest in I did.”

Through her research George found that in 2014 women made up just 4% of the VC industry as a whole and in 2020 they make up just 4-5%. She explains why six years on nothing much has changed, “it is not because there are no new women in venture capital on the investment partner level it is because there are new firms that are managed by men. So the number of male managed VC firms and female managed VC firms is kind of on par, which brings us to the next conclusion that despite all of this buzz about women in venture capital the dynamics of growth are still the same.”

So how to combat these disparities between genders? The US is driven towards implementing gender quotas but George says “in the circle at the top, the majority of us think that quotas do not do much good.” In her book “Women Who Venture” the women were very vocal about wanting to hire and be hired based on merit. On the other hand, in her book women said that when they get to the top, their job as women is to bring at least one more woman to that same level. She mentions the following metaphor, “I always have to send the lift back down and bring at least one other woman to my floor. This is what we have to do regardless of quotas, our job is to send the lift back to bring another woman to the top. At our level we don’t like quotas and we don’t need them but it’s a good thing that they exist to get more women involved because that lift only works if there is a place for her at the table.”

George thinks that in any male-dominated arena the most important things a woman can equip herself with are merits and a thick skin, her point being that “at some level quotas are good but once you’re through the door you need to understand that there will be no one bringing you anything on a silver platter [to] put it in your mouth with a silver spoon.”

She advises that “if you have merits and you have a thick skin there is no glass ceiling. That’s not just my opinion because I am Eastern European and I was raised like that, but all those 100 women that I interviewed for the [latest] book, they said the same.”

The equality and discriminaton issue is a very complex one, but it is particularly complex in the US and George confesses, “It took me a couple of years to understand that the history in the United States is entirely different and the women in the United States had very different positions.” The fact that 40 percent of women in Russia hold high positions in technology and research is an incredible number for the US. She elaborates upon these differences in mentality, “we didn’t know that discrimination existed, we just went out there and did our thing, we didn’t know that we were being discriminated [against] by men, whoever it was or whatever men did to us no matter how they misbehaved, for us it was just yet another barrier on the way to success.”

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George concludes that women need to be clear about what they are fighting for, “we are not fighting for equality as a general thing we are fighting for equality on the top level. On the decision making level.” She criticizes the media for focusing on the negative aspects of gender statistics rather than highlighting those women who have broken the mould and who could provide inspiration to others to do the same, “I think that the media should pay more attention to the positives than the negatives because the negatives actually could convince women that there is no way for them to win.”

Lisa Bogadist-Kataeva Hudson is the director of Global Events at WomenHack, an initiative that aims to bridge the IT gender gap and give women additional opportunities to succeed in tech in more than 45 countries around the globe. Hudson hails from Moscow but found herself in the US in 2014 after moving away from Moscow following the Crimean crisis and subsequent sanctioning. She was encouraged by friends to stay in San Diego and work with them in Silicon Valley, she agreed and began her tech career by working for a Russian travel start-up.

While acquainting herself with work in the Valley, Hudson also completed degrees in marketing and business administration at UC Berkeley and communication and broadcasting in San Francisco State. While finishing the latter she began to work for a company called HackerX which is now the world’s largest invite-only networking and recruiting event for developers. Following the first three weeks of her time there she transferred to WomenHack and became the director of global events. Alongside four others she now runs events aimed at promoting women in tech all over the world.

Hudson’s first Russia-based event was initially planned to take place in April of this year but it was postponed until September due to the pandemic restrictions. This event generated a lot of positive feedback but was not spared from the criticism that “you discriminate against men, if you divide men and women this is not about diversity and inclusion, you highlight the issue. It’s a very common thing that people always say, which is of course not true.” This general backlash is common in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Singapore, Russia and Ukraine. It is important to understand that being “women-focused” doesn't mean that WomenHack excludes men from taking part in their events, everyone is welcome “those who want to listen about how our diversity can make us stronger will come to the events and those who don’t want to listen just block us.”

When questioning ideas about gender in Russia, Hudson says it’s important to put things into historical perspective, highlighting that most men were at war during WWII, so women had to take to the factories and the fields. “Then it transitioned into their daughters, who would go and study computer engineering or chemistry. Those professions that were not very popular in the US during the ’50s and ’60s as women were expected to be mothers and housewives.” In the USSR, they needed women both to fill out the workforce after the devastation of the war and for ideological reasons, “In my experience and in the experience of my mom and my grandma, it’s uncommon to hear the phrase ‘this is not a woman’s job’.”

Other countries are now trying to fix this problem, but Hudson worries that the mentality is slowly reversing in Russia. “We are now a few generations after the war and the gender situation has stabilized. There are more or less the same amount of men and women ... so it goes backwards. It will take [Russia] longer to get to the stage of encouraging diversity with help from the government, because we are not that bad yet. But, unfortunately, we’re going that way.”

Hudson says that in spite of an appearance of equality, with most women in Russia having their own careers, women still tend to be paid less than men. She explains that “it’s always like that – they’re allowed to be scientists and get promoted, but if you have two people of the opposite gender in the same position, the men will always get paid more.” This holds true to the present day, and Hudson advises that women need to be encouraged to speak up for themselves at work, “It’s OK to prove your point – you don’t have to be comfortable, to be around for everyone. Stand out and talk about what you care about.”

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When comparing it to Silicon Valley, Hudson notes that the tech industry in Moscow is blooming, “I see a great future here and I believe that there will be a time when people will stop leaving Russia and maybe will even start coming to Russia.” But in terms of women in technology, she thinks the future depends on those in leadership roles and on women, specifically, who need to take action. “There are a lot of brilliant women in leadership who are doing just that – they don’t need to be especially encouraged … they just need to be heard.”

It is interesting that the notion of gender equality in the workplace differs so much from West to East. In the US, it is an unspoken history of women being taught to “know their place” – their place being at home – whereas, in Russia and the former USSR, it’s a question of striving to continue the tradition of encouraging women to fulfil themselves with work beyond the home. What is clear is that, for working women everywhere, it is important to believe in yourself enough to look beyond the seeming limitations posed by your gender and strive towards the top in spite of any obstacles that may present themselves.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.