When I first envisioned my senior thesis in Anthropology, I thought I would be focusing mainly on gender in startup culture. Indeed, the gender gap in the startup world, particularly among tech companies, has been a highly prominent issue in recent news, and the lack of women was immediately evident in my field research. But no culture is ever so simple, and what I have begun to discover runs far deeper than just one aspect.
Although I began conducting interviews with startup employees over the phone early in my research, I knew that I would never gain a true understanding of the elemental facets of startup culture until I visited companies in person. With the funding of a generous grant from CMC’s Berger Institute, I traveled to San Francisco and Silicon Valley for four days over Fall Break to experience the startup scene first-hand.
Over the course of these four days of research, I was able to visit seven different startups. They varied in their sizes and products, but none failed to impress with the flashy “perks” that startups in the region have become known for: I saw themed kitchens with barrels full of candy and furniture made out of Lego blocks, a slide that stretched from a third-story office down to the lobby, elevators shaped like rocket ships, and, of course, more free gourmet food than I could have eaten in a month.
What caught my attention, however, had nothing to do with free massages or ping-pong tables. I was struck instead by a shocking reality that I had not come to the Valley seeking, one that I had not understood from my interviews thus far. Although many aspects of startup culture—such as the perks—were exactly what I had expected, there were other aspects that presented wide disparities between the cultural narrative and the lived reality. In particular, most startups claim to promote a healthy work-life balance, yet CEOs admitted to me that they provided perks so their employees would stay in the office longer. Many people I spoke with worked longer hours than their friends in corporations, and several older startup employees mentioned having to choose between spending time with their families and keeping their jobs. These disparities tended to fall most heavily on older people (in the startup world, one CEO told me, being over fifty means you are obsolete) and on females.
As a student, an anthropologist, and a California resident, it is incredible to be on the cutting edge of such a quickly evolving industry. Startups are an essential part of the Silicon Valley economy and culture, and they have had many positive impacts on their employees and on the world. What has become clear, however, is that they must be considered through a more critical lens. In an industry that claims to be on the cutting edge of the industrial frontier, it is incredible that such implicit discrimination continues to exist, a fact made particularly ironic by the inclusive, supportive, and flat-structured cultural narratives that most startups espouse.