Women in the industry reflect on gender issues following a controversial and widely circulated memo from a Google employee questioning women’s capacity for success in tech.
Silicon Valley is no stranger to controversies around gender and diversity. A detailed blog post published earlier this year by a former Uber employee about the company’s culture of dismissing sexual harassment charges and protecting “high-value” male employees opened the floodgates for women in the industry to share stories of gender-based discrimination and harassment by high-profile male company leaders, investors and mentors.
When Google programmer James Damore last week circulated a memo suggesting that biological differences between men and women are responsible for the company’s gender equity issues, the industry circled back on the gender conversation it’s been having in fits and starts all year. Google’s decision to fire Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace” added a new layer to the conversation about the role of the industry in shaping workplace culture.
Women in legal technology operate at the nexus of two heavily male-dominated fields: law and technology. But the upper tiers of both industries continue to favor men at astonishingly high rates. Women make up only 18 percent of all law firm equity partners, 11 percent of all Silicon Valley executives and only 7 percent of all venture capital firm partners. The numbers dwindle further for women of color. These equity gaps put women in the legal tech industry in a unique in-between space, something that can be both a challenge and an opportunity for creating new cultures around gender in the workplace.
Nicole Shanahan, founder and CEO of patent data analysis software company ClearAccessIP and a fellow at Stanford CodeX, has found this intersection difficult, and likens it to similar intersections in the financial technology community.
“The culture of the legal tech community, in my opinion, is most closely aligned with the financial tech community—a culture dominated by white males both on the vendor and consumer sides—and a cultural legacy that has been defined by white men in suits,” she said.
That cultural legacy leaves Shanahan in a fairly lonely position. At all of the corporate dinners with legal technology companies she’s attended through Stanford’s CodeX affiliation, not once has she encountered another female technologist. And while male leaders in the legal tech sphere can look at up-and-coming male entrepreneurs and see glimpses of themselves, Shanahan finds that she reads comparatively like “a confusing outlier.”
Sometimes, she noted, this can look more pernicious than just a basic lack of commonality. “As a woman lawyer, CEO of an AI legal tech company and person of color (I am half Chinese and look Polynesian), I’ve seen a lot that I would have preferred to have avoided,” Shanahan said.
“For me, it often feels like there is a silent phantom killer of diversity that floats around the ether—the frequent experience of not being treated with respect, spoken over, de-prioritized, infantilized, misinterpreted and even yelled at for being ‘too aggressive’—these experiences seep into the psyche of female legal tech professionals like a silent cancer. It is there, pervasive and, if you are woman, you know all too well how it feels,” she added.
Alma Asay, founder of litigation software Allegory Law, saw these gender-based tendencies among investors impinge on her ability to put together initial fundraising for her company. “I’d be in there pitching, and they'd ask me about my dating life,” Asay said of her experiences courting venture capital funding. “You're already walking in at a disadvantage."
“For a female legal tech founder, it feels like a crowded, loud and derisive environment that lacks trust of new entrants. For a white male founder, it feels like an exciting new frontier full of possibilities and addressable challenges,” Shanahan remarked.
Culture in Crisis
While some may think of the Google employee as an exception in a culture priding itself on diversity and inclusivity, Shanahan finds that the racial and gender homogeneity of the legal, technology and legal technology spaces lends itself to the views expressed in the Google memo.
“Combining a professional service that is already mostly white male, with software, which is also mostly white male, guarantees an environment that contains characters with beliefs similar to those expressed by the young Googler in his memo. People tend to believe what they see, and if diversity is absent from view, people come up with their own theories as to why that is. Biology or ‘nature’ is an easy scapegoat for someone without personal context, much easier to digest than systemic injustice,” she said.
Certainly not all women in legal technology have uniform experiences. Anna McGrane, chief operating officer at PacerPro, really hasn’t felt these frustrations throughout her work. “I kind of hear things, but I mostly just spend most of my time with our clients and our team,” McGrane said.
The deference to tradition that Shanahan points out is something that McGrane sees cutting across many problems within the legal technology industry beyond the lack of other women in the field.
“In legal tech, I guess I don’t see that as much between men and women, but I do see it as to lawyer and nonlawyer,” she said, pointing to the ways in which attorneys in the space tend to neglect or devalue the content knowledge of legal support staff. “It’s that kind of binary thinking that I see in both communities,” McGrane said of the legal and technology spheres.