Adam Chalmers

@adam_chal

The Disappearing DriveCo Women

March 1st 2017
San Francisco at night (Daniel Schwen)

Let me tell you about a job I worked back in the good old days. It was 2017. A simpler time. Phones had apps, Wikipedia was free, and Canada still existed. It was a cold November evening, and I was out looking for women. Not like that. This was for a job. I’d been hired by Thomas Talakip, billionaire CEO of popular taxi-replacement app DriveCo, because women were going missing. Smart, well-paid engineering women were disappearing from the DriveCo office. I met Thomas at his boardroom/gym/cereal bar (hey, space is tight in the Bay) and got to work.

“How many ladies are we talking about, Thomas?”
“Seventy four. “
“Bloody hell. When did it start? This week?”
“Worse than that. Over the last thirteen months.”

I crunched on cereal and crunched the numbers. Thomas hadn’t noticed 89% of DriveCo’s female engineering force disappearing over the year? How could that be? Surely a CEO who only hired the best would have noticed when all the best stopped showing up to work. Could he have been deliberately ignoring the decreasing numbers of women in engineering? Or was there perhaps some sort of complicated conspiracy where criminal masterminds had hacked DriveCo to cover their tracks? Hmm. Which was it? Sexism in DriveCo management, or a complicated conspiracy? I put out my cigarette and summoned a DriveCo to take me to San Francisco. There was a complicated conspiracy to investigate.

* * *

I pounded pavement till dark, keeping one eye on the shadows and one eye on Twitter. A shocking number of women had disappeared from DriveCo over the year. I reckoned it’d be weeks before I got any leads, but life just loves to surprise a guy. I found the first woman drinking at The Interval. Or should I say, she found me. I shouldn’t, because she didn’t. There she was, legs long enough to reach the ground, drinking espresso martinis with a couple of friends. I watched her from afar, like a Palantir drone watching weddings in Yemen. Eventually she stepped up to the bar and I sidled up alongside her, like a Palantir drone sidling up to a wedding in Yemen.

“Happy Friday,” I said, lifting my glass in her direction. “Glad the work week’s over?”
“I quit on Monday. It’s been Friday all week.”
“Lucky you. Unlucky company. Wanna vent?”

She glanced around the room. “Don’t work at DriveCo. Great app, terrible workplace. There’s only so many times you can be propositioned by your manager before you start redoing your LinkedIn. And when your manager’s manager won’t listen, and their manager won’t listen…”

Interesting. She had a whole story about sexism at DriveCo, but it left me with nagging doubts. Like how could DriveCo mistreat women if they hired women? And if DriveCo was sexist, then why did they have lots of money? It didn’t add up. And as we say in Silicon Valley: “if the numbers don’t add up, delay your IPO again.”

I summoned a DriveCo and headed home. Maybe a good night’s sleep in my $2300-a-month broom closet would help. I strapped myself into my velcro harness and fell asleep vertically in my cozy 4 square feet. I dreamed about DriveCo cars zooming across vast roads of crying faces while a giant Thomas Talakip vaped clouds of Soylent tobacco across the sky. I woke up sweating, pushed aside the brooms, undid the velcro and got to work.

I found one missing woman at the farmer’s markets, another at Starbucks, a third stuck having her own thesis explained to her at a Javascript meetup. I couldn’t believe it. The missing DriveCo engineers were popping up like food courier apps. And all of them told the same story: mistreatment at work consistent with structural misogyny woven into the company culture. But their eyes told a different story, a story about a woman who was scared, a woman on the run, but not in a gendered way.

I wasn’t the kind for self-doubt, but I decided a little hypothesis validation could never go astray.

“Thomas, are you sure they didn’t just quit?”

“Of course. Why would anyone want to quit DriveCo?” he asked, over Tuesday morning beers with the C-suite boys. He was right, damnit. I couldn’t think of a single reason. So I left their newly-expanded boardroom/gym/cereal bar/strip club/brewery, and walked out into the night. I vaped a cloud of kale oil into the cold November wind and sighed. This case was as hard as a stale tortilla, and twice as greasy.

* * *

I got my big break at the #DeleteDriveCo rally that week. Thomas Talakip had been caught hunting DriveCo drivers for sport — although, to be fair, he had issued a very genuine apology. My hunch paid off — there in the crowd were two more missing engineers. “DriveCo needs to change!” they chanted. Of course they did. Any company that lets 89% of female engineers get kidnapped was doing something wrong.

I spoke to them both after the rally, but I was left with more questions than answers. They were really sticking to this “sexism in tech” story. I was flummoxed. Who should I believe? One CEO, or seventy four women? It was a classic he-said, she-and-seventy-four-others-said.

Some stories have a neat ending, but not this one. See, life in Silicon Valley is like iTunes — It’s confusing, ever-changing and it terminates unexpectedly. The DriveCo case still haunts me. Sometimes I wake up, skin sweaty, fingers twitching out phantom #DeleteDriveCo tweets. In the end, the DriveCo board and I just have to accept that we might never know what happened to those women, no matter how many of them tell us exactly what it was.

If you liked this story, click the heart to let me know! If you didn’t like this story, please sit under a tree for ten minutes and think about something nice, like dogs or the smell of rain.

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