XY Combinator

Because I aspire to a life of Sysiphisian scrambling and hate free time, I recently renewed my long-lapsed New Yorker subscription. Before becoming buried under a stack of thin volumes and a feeling of general ennui, I devoured—with equal parts prurient interest and visceral horror—Tad Friend’s October 10 profile of Sam Altman and Y Combinator, the famous Silicon Valley start-up incubator.

The profile reads a bit like an Old Testament genealogy, with a cavalcade of highly educated men parading across the pages in account after account of male excellence and folly. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is governed by men (white men, specifically), but surely there would be some women entrepreneurs or backroom VCs that would warrant a mention in the 12 dense pages? Yeah? …Nah. Grab the feminist pitchforks!

I thought I'd get a bit of data behind me before publicly venting my righteous anger, so I went back to the magazine for a deeper look.

My first impulse when looking at a text is not usually to dive into a quantitative analysis. This goes back to my time as a gormless undergraduate, when I was happy (and lucky) to fall under the influence of a cabal of Marxist media theory lecturers who wore black and drank a lot of diet coke. In contrast, the few old-fashioned social scientists in the department were referred to derisively as “television counters” — stodgy and overly concerned with viewer counts and user surveys. But in a political climate where gut feelings are lauded as fact and facts are political, a bit of good old fashioned television counting can be a useful counterbalance. Time for a close reading.

I drew up a quick table for tracking the numbers of men and women mentioned in the story. Upon beginning the count, I soon needed to add a third column for an ambiguous category of "personhood": artificial intelligence (AI). Here’s what I found:

Men: 59
Women: 7
AI: 3

Digging in a little bit, I parsed out the numbers of active characters—those interviewed or discussed at any length—from the names that were referenced once or mentioned only in passing. Here’s how that breakdown looks:

Men: 40
Women: 3
AI: 0

There we go. Once you take out breezy cultural namedrops (“Hillary” “Beyoncé”) and references to robot assistants, you’re left with three women who play an actual role in the story.

These three women are all defined by their relationship to protagonist men: Sam Altman’s mother, his high school counselor, and his colleague’s wife-slash-business partner. Friend initially introduces Altman’s mother and his colleague’s wife not by name, but as “his mother” and “his wife” respectively. Of the three, Jessica Livingston, wife of Paul Graham and co-founder of Y Combinator, is discussed at the greatest length. In contrast to her husband and the other founders whose technical skills and theories about machine learning are covered in depth, Friend lauds Livingston for being a “remarkable judge of character” who gives "advice and home-cooked chicken fricassee” to young entrepreneurs. Livingston has a noteworthy career as a marketing VP, founder, and investor outside of her work with her husband, but it’s her tasty chicken that seems to have made the most impact—at least on the author.

And the AI column? Each of the of anthropomorphized AI systems—Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortina—are gendered female, although I would hesitate to place them in the "women" column alongside Beyoncé, Hillary, and Altman’s mom. It is worth noting that similar to the three women interviewed in the story, the feminized AI all function as service and support providers, assisting without complaint.

We all know that tech has a “women problem” (not to mention a “diversity problem” in general). Is it really so bad though, that a journalist would encounter only one woman whose contribution to the milieu is worth writing about? While representation isn’t the same as true inclusion, I’d hope that the New Yorker considers the balance of gender, race, class, and etc within and across its weekly feature stories.*

Outside of supportive wives and mothers, there is one fleeting mention of the existence of female entrepreneurs. Friend is reporting from a Y Combinator party, and he notes that “all the early arrivals at the party were men; the batch’s female founders were attending a presentation on the challenges of being a female founder”.


Did the women entrepreneurs turn up later to talk shop and complain about patriarchy around the fire pit? Friend doesn’t say. Maybe he didn’t stick around to find out. 

*The other feature articles in this issue were “The Anti-Uber: A new strategy in the ride wars”, “Cashing Out: Do we need paper money?”, and “Trump town: How a West Virginia county turned deep red”. While I’m not masochistic enough to analyze the whole magazine, suffice to say it was not a very woman-heavy issue.