The Conversation

Sexism in Silicon Valley

For the April cover story, Liza Mundy asked, “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” She explored the multimillion-dollar efforts of high-profile tech companies to improve conditions for female employees, some of which have been unsuccessful and some of which still hold out promise for positive changes.

It was terrible to read in Liza Mundy’s article that women in tech fields today are facing the same kinds and level of discrimination that my women colleagues and I experienced in physics in the 1960s and ’70s. I agree with Ms. Mundy that the issue remains most intractable in fields where genius is celebrated; women and minorities are seen as less likely to possess that elusive quality, and by extrapolation to be less competent generally. A professor I had hoped to work with in graduate school candidly told me that he couldn’t add me to his research group, because he’d already agreed to hire another woman and the group couldn’t tolerate two of us.
One tactic that we used then might be useful in tech companies. Gather as many technical women from all levels of your organization as possible and invite the men in responsible positions to join you for lunch, one at a time. This allows each man to see how it feels to be the only man in the room for at least a brief period. Although it isn’t possible to quantify the effects of these lunches, they did produce some interesting results. One admiral at the Office of Naval Research was so discomfited that he talked nonstop for an hour and a half without touching his food. Lunch groups also send a subtle message throughout the organization that women will support one another.
Kristl Hathaway, Ph.D.
Deale, Md.

Having females leading in the C-suite makes all the difference. Leadership starts at the top. Role modeling transforms organizations. My experience informs me that the “rule of three” is magic: One female leader is not enough to change the culture. Three begins the process.
Female leadership is perhaps one of the only areas where the concept of trickle-down economics works.
Anne Bonaparte
Mill Valley, Calif.

This article could have been written about any industry or professional group. I despair sometimes of living to see the day when men get their heads on straight and recognize that our greatest natural resource is our people. Surely refusing to allow half of that resource to reach its full potential is foolishness carried to the extreme.

Robert Blackshaw
Glenwood, Md.

Fixing Tech’s “Loss Points”

Prompted by the April cover story, The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White interviewed Melinda Gates about women in technology. Here are portions of their conversation. To read the full Q&A, visit

White: What’s at risk if more women don’t get incorporated into computer science and tech?

Gates: I think we’ll have so much hidden bias coded into the system that we won’t even realize all the places that we have it. If you don’t have a diverse workforce programming artificial intelligence and thinking about the data sets to feed in, and how to look at a particular program, you’re going to have so much bias in the system, you’re going to have a hard time rolling it back later or taking it out.

White: You mentioned being an undergrad and feeling like gender equity would increase in the world of computer science. Why do you think that, in large part, hasn’t happened?

Gates: I don’t think anyone knows for sure. We know there are these gaps—what I call loss points—that start all the way at the kindergarten level. Then you see it again at elementary, you see it in middle school, high school, college, and then going into industry. And when you have any kind of pipeline that’s leaky in so many places, you can’t plug just one piece of it. So I think we have to do certain things at each of those …

I think in the industry, if women come out of computer-science [majors], and they’re successful but they don’t feel welcomed, that’s another place you have a huge loss point.

White: Sometimes claims about gender discrimination or leaks about the way women are talked about in the industry make me wonder whether male leaders are really committed to change, or if that’s just public-facing rhetoric. Do you think they are?

Gates: I don’t work in all those companies, but I can say this: I know some of the larger companies are very committed to it. I mean, Microsoft, Facebook—they want great technical women and they are making changes … They’re all going after a very small pool of computer-science women. They know their products will be better if they have women on those teams. They want a more diverse team. They also know that once they recruit them, retaining them is hard, because not only is another place trying to recruit them away but they also are learning that those women, if they’re the only [woman] on the team, will report not feeling great about their work.

White: How are you thinking about intersectionality as you pursue gender diversity? Computer science seems like one of these areas where there could be the danger of moving the needle for affluent women, or white and Asian women who are already in the space in higher numbers, but leaving out black women, Latinas, and those who don’t come from backgrounds where computer science is as easily accessible.

Gates: I think we have to reach people where they are. If we only go to the elite institutions that are doing a good job of pulling in computer-science majors, you’re right, you’re going to get a certain type of woman coming in. But if you make sure it spreads to all institutions, institutions that have a very diverse student body, then I think you’ll get diversity more across the board.

White: You’ve become most well known for the significant humanitarian work that the Gates Foundation does. Why is gender diversity in tech an issue that’s critical enough to divert some of your attention?

Gates: Tech underlies everything we do. It’s game-changing in every single field across the board. It’s almost like asking yourself the question of, well, what if we didn’t have any women scientists in biology? Well, I can tell you we wouldn’t be studying women’s health if we didn’t have amazing women biologists. If we don’t have women in the tech space, we won’t even be asking ourselves some of the right questions. I can’t imagine a world without women in tech.

Containing Trump

In the March issue, Jonathan Rauch argued that while Donald Trump might try to govern as an authoritarian, civil society’s response would determine his success. He noted a decline in support for democracy in America (and around the world), but pointed to encouraging signs—such as the creation of groups like After Trump—that the public will hold government accountable.
Jonathan Rauch is alarmed at the proportion of people in the U.S. saying it would be good or very good for the “Army to rule.” He sees this as a decline in support for democracy, especially among the young. Perhaps, but it might be a decline in support specifically for U.S.-style democracy.
The will of the majority is routinely subverted at the federal level these days. By design, rural states are overrepresented in the U.S. Senate. The Electoral College has overruled the popular vote twice in the past five presidential elections, and ever since some states withdrew electors’ right to vote their conscience, the Electoral College does nothing to prevent a demagogue from assuming the presidency. Gerrymandering congressional districts has become such a science that in 2012, more votes were cast across the nation for Democrats than for Republicans, but Republicans retained a strong majority in the House of Representatives. This phenomenon has happened in a number of state legislatures, too. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unquestionably thwarted the intent of the Constitution with his shameful treatment of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and has suffered no ill consequences whatsoever.
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These are the only features of American democracy young people have ever known; is anyone surprised that they view it as a sham? If a new democracy somewhere in the developing world declared that it was okay for the party in power to redraw district boundaries solely for the purpose of staying in power, how would we react?
I submit that America has been running the beta-test version of democracy all these years. The U.S. was the first modern democracy, but, like an initial version of software, there are bugs in the system. In addition to the problems I’ve already listed, the U.S. split the legislative and executive functions but combined the head of state with the head of government. We made it difficult for government to get anything done (checks and balances) but also to remove officeholders when they fail to perform. Other countries installed “upgraded” parliamentary versions of democracy, in which the heads of state and government are kept separate, and the governing majority has the power to get things done. If leaders fail, they can quickly be removed through a vote of no confidence. The parliamentary system is far from perfect, but it is much more efficient than our perpetual gridlock.
Republicans have carried the popular vote in a presidential election exactly once in the past 28 years, but all the “bugs” of U.S. democracy are currently working in their favor. They are not about to agree to give up those advantages. As such, democracy in the U.S. will not change—unless, of course, the generals take over. To be clear: I’m not advocating such a thing. But I can see why young people may view it as no worse than the status quo.
Patrick Leach
Houston, Texas

Athens as Analogy

In April’s “Making Athens Great Again,” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein looked to Plato and ancient Athens for an example of how a citizen responds when a democracy that prides itself on being exceptional betrays its highest principles.
Analogizing from the ancient past can be fun, but it often reveals more about the analogist than either the past or the present. Although she never mentions the president by name, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sees the election of Donald Trump as a reactionary repudiation of all that makes America good. In her view, America’s election of Trump is akin to Athens’s execution of Socrates and, by extension, reason and virtue. Socrates’s crime? Pointing out to his fellow Athenians their moral arrogance.
But when it comes to moral arrogance, it’s pretty hard to top Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated presidential campaign, dripping with Periclean superiority as Clinton famously castigated her opponent’s supporters as “deplorables.” Here is another reading of ancient history and modern politics: The 2016 election was the Peloponnesian War and, despite its superior culture, Athens again lost. The coastal elites, like the seafaring Athenians, cosmopolitan and supremely self-satisfied, confident of victory and the rightness of their cause, smugly dismissed their less cultured, less worldly countrymen in the hinterland and were openly contemptuous of their brutish leader. This hubris has brought us to where we are now. What’s more, defeat has done little to quell moral superiority. The left still clings to its dogmas and will brook no discussion, let alone dissent. (“No, you pro-life so-called feminists, you can’t march with us.”)
Where does Plato come out in all this? While Ms. Goldstein talks about Plato’s dialogues, conspicuously absent is any specific mention of his Republic, which—with its militaristic caste, the guardians, controlling political power; its reliance on the Noble Lie (alternative facts?); and its censorship of poets—resembles Sparta more than Athens. It’s as if after his sojourn abroad, Plato returned home to tell his fellow Athenians, “Since we couldn’t beat them, we might as well join them.”
Joe Borini
New York, N.Y.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein replies:

Plato’s unique place in the Western philosophical canon is not a matter of the adequacy of every solution he proposed but rather of the profundity and continued relevance of the problems he unearthed. Among these problems none is more timely than figuring out how we, prone to unreason and factionalism, can best live together in a civil society that will promote the flourishing of all. The proposals that we find distasteful in the Republic—the censorship of the arts, one (and only one) Noble Lie—were extreme measures intended to meet the extreme defect Plato detected in human nature: our susceptibility to an irrationality that can push us toward injustice and disaster. It was a first attempt to think out a society that would suppress what is worst in us, including our turning politics into a team sport, as when major policies are equated with minor gaffes.
Joe Borini gets one aspect of Plato’s utopia flagrantly wrong: The guardians are not military soldiers on the Spartan model but rather thinker-statesmen (and some of them philosopher-kings) who have undergone decades of education, becoming not only knowledgeable but also, more important, purified of narrow self-interest. To clinch the deal, Plato suggested that these thinker-statesmen not be allowed to hold private property, a negative inducement for would-be leaders of the wrong type.
Here, too, Plato was pondering a question whose answer continues to elude us: How do we arrange our political system to attract to positions of great power those who will not abuse it?

The Big Question: What was the most significant environmental catastrophe of all time?

(On, readers answered May’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

5. The advent of the Anthropocene epoch, which ushered in human-induced environmental disasters like mass extinction, worldwide pollution, and climate change, posing as a prelude to Earth’s sixth extinction.

— Dan Fredricks

4. The Bhopal gas-leak disaster in 1984, in which hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals.

— Claire B. Ruben

3. It was, is, and will be the melting of Arctic sea ice.

— Gerald Bazer

2. The end-Permian extinction, nicknamed the Great Dying when a staggering number of species died out. All life on Earth today is descended from the small percentage of species that survived.

— Toni Bal

1. Getting hooked on burning fossil fuels as gas and for electricity and heating.

— Patrik Dahl

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