Paul Graham Shows That Sexism in Tech Is Still a Problem

Once again, Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham’s mouth has landed him in hot water. The loose-lipped Silicon Valley power broker said some dumb stuff about women.

graham tweet

In an interview with The Information, Graham was asked about discrimination in the tech scene. Troves of evidence exist revealing sexism in tech exists, like this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference, as one example. But Valleywag highlighted Graham’s comments that show he doesn’t see sexism as a problem, and in fact thinks women are just naturally behind the hacking eightball. Graham now contends the whole thing is one big misunderstanding.

The Information’s Eric Newcomer asked whether Graham’s startup accelerator, Y-Combinator, discriminates against women, and his answer quickly became a defense of tech culture as a whole. Graham said his company does not discriminate, and that any gender imbalance can be explained by the fact that girls don’t start hacking at the same age boys do.

If someone was going to be really good at programming they would have found it on their own. Then if you go look at the bios of successful founders this is invariably the case, they were all hacking on computers at age 13. What that means is the problem is 10 years upstream of us. If we really wanted to fix this problem, what we would have to do is not encourage women to start startups now.

It’s already too late. What we should be doing is somehow changing the middle school computer science curriculum or something like that. God knows what you would do to get 13 year old girls interested in computers. I would have to stop and think about that.

Later, Graham tried to explain that discrimination cannot exist because girls attend tech conferences too. Besides, the time thing. “We can’t make women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven’t been hacking for the past 10 years,” he said, later in the interview.

The notion of limits on when and how one can start coding is astonishing. Coding is supposed to be the one thing anyone can learn and change their life with. What about all the homeless people? Silicon Valley is supposed to be where bootstraps pick themselves up by the bootstraps and change the world. But apparently that’s not an option for women because of they’re too busy not being on the computer at 13-years-old.

People were predictably outraged over Graham’s comments about girls not hacking for the last ten years. A storm is brewing. That these comments are coming from Graham, an extremely important and influential person in the tech world, is especially troubling. ”Here is a hacker hero—the figurehead behind Hacker News!—and he has no clue how to get girls to care about tech,” said Valleywag’s Nitasha Tiku. But maybe they should not be surprising, considering this is the same guy who admitted discriminating against startup founders with foreign accents.

At one point Graham also said startups sometimes don’t hire people who did not start hacking until studying computer science in college. This, according to Graham, is why there’s some confusion. See, he meant to say “these women,” as in the ones who didn’t start hacking until college:


(Update, 04/01/2014 at 5:25 p.m. Graham expanded his defense in emails to Valleywag. He was allegedly misquoted during an interview for a profile on his wife.) To summarize: girls aren’t interested in hacking or coding at an early age, but sometimes they start in college, and then they’ll have terrible job prospects because they didn’t start early enough. Or, something. That’s a rough outlook for any women hoping to break into tech’s boys club.

Following Graham’s logic can be difficult. Tiku put it best when she said he’s merely “justifying the status quo,” rather than examining a real problem. Graham has once again proven himself proud to be the champion of everything wrong with Silicon Valley culture. Thankfully, there are people like Elissa Shevinsky telling women they can go to liberal arts school and read Plato and still play with computers.

Update, 06/01/2014 at 8:55 am: Graham has posted an explanation on his website at: http://paulgraham.com/wids.html


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  • rlbrandt

    You might want to look at his full explanation. http://paulgraham.com/wids.html

    • http://www.pandagon.net/ Pandagon

      Thank you for the link. I have added it to the article.

    • LolKatzen

      I read the link and he is talking about people who create start-up companies. Like so many areas of life, women are often under-represented because many of them also want to have families. Children are very time and attention consuming!

      Many of these startup types may be totally wrapped up in their work. They would hardly consider a several-year break for children. Example: my daughter, at the conclusion of med school (and with excellent marks and credentials) considered specializing in neurosurgery (for her residency). She was told that to specialize in neuro- or cardiac surgery, “You must be prepared for your work to be your whole life.” But she wanted a family too, so she settled for general surgery. Perfect example of a woman appearing to achieve at a lower level because she wanted more from life than work.

      But someone has to have children.

  • LolKatzen

    I couldn’t have started hacking at 13, since that was year 1964. But I majored in Math (Computer Science was just coming in as a major). And I started working as a programmer in 1982 (time out for a family). Programming (or coding, as you call it) cannot be done by anyone. The programmers of my day had Math/Physics backgrounds (with high marks). Something prevented them from going to grad school ( family in my case).

    Programming can be done by the same people who are capable of getting a Math/Physics (or some branches of engineering) degree with Honours First Class.

    Definitely not anyone. I have experienced very little sexism, if any. Science guys just aren’t like that.

    (I am female, in case that’s not clear).

    I admit to knowing nothing about Silicon Valley (I live in Canada).

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