What it’s like to be a senior women in Silicon Valley

Global Women member Sara Clemens has recently been appointed COO of the world’s leading live social video platform for gaming, Twitch. A hardcoded kiwi, Sara is a digital power player; the founding member of the team that created Microsoft’s AR headset and the woman credited with launching LinkedIn in China.

In this personal interview with Global Women, Sara talks about the changing attitudes towards gender equality in society, and what it’s like to be a senior women in Silicon Valley in 2018.


Global Women (GW): The last six months have seen the #metoo and Time’s Up movements. Do you see these as a turning point in US society? And are they translating into changes in the workplace?

Sara Clemens (SC): While I’m very supportive and inspired by both movements, I am wary of treating events like #metoo as “turning points”. The publishing of Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist manifesto LeanIn in 2013 was also heralded as a turning point, and 5 years later research done by the LeanIn foundation and McKinsey & Co. suggests progress has been limited and may even be stalling. The research found that nearly 50% of men think that when 1 in 10 leaders in their company is a woman, that is sufficient. Astonishingly 30% of women agree. Progress towards equality requires commitment to systemic change. Moments that highlight inequality can help energize people, but it is the sustained effort that comes after that which produces real and lasting change. That is where I think real progress will be made.


GW: Increasingly, millennial woman are leaving corporate life to start their own businesses. Women-owned businesses in the United States continue to grow at a faster rate than any other demographic. Are traditional corporates failing women? What about start-ups/tech companies – do you see the same pattern?

SC: I am encouraged by these trends: a FundersClub survey in 2017 found that U.S. technology startups with at least one female founder report employee teams that comprise, on average, 48% women. This is twice the national average reported by startups with no female founders, and higher than the percentage reported by major technology companies like Google and Facebook. However it is essential to address the funding gap for startups: only 2.2% of VC funding in 2017 went to all-female teams, while all-male teams received 79%. Fortune magazine’s investigation into this disparity concluded that – much as in corporate promotions – men are judged on potential and women on performance. Understanding the underlying behaviours driving disparity is essential to creating mechanisms to drive change.


GW: I hugely appreciated your honesty in an interview with the Herald in 2014 where you acknowledged the impossibility of committing yourself fully to an all-consuming job and being a primary caregiver to a child. Is this a fundamental stumbling block as we seek gender balanced leadership teams in business – that you have to choose parenthood or work?

SC: Absolutely not. Decisions about parenting and career are incredibly personal and multi-faceted, and extrapolating from one person’s decision is unhelpful to the broader dialogue around parenting and careers. This discussion needs to move away from the idea that women having children is an impediment to achieving gender balanced leadership teams, to how we build balanced leadership teams and enable balanced family support structures. I’m delighted to see Jacinda Ardern creating such a positive role model in this regard.


GW: On a more positive note, what is the one action that managers and business leaders can take in 2018 that will make a tangible difference to achieving more gender balanced leadership teams?

SC: Compensation parity is critical: economic power begets political power begets systemic and positive cultural change. Equal pay has been proven to help reduce poverty and improve the broader economy: it is the classic example of a rising tide lifting all boats.  There is absolutely no excuse to have pay disparity for like-for-like work in 2018.


GW: With so many high-pressure roles to take care of, how do you ensure you are also taking care of yourself, mentally and physically?

SC: Sleep, sleep, sleep! In my 30’s I got by on 4 or 5 hours a night but in hindsight this was completely counterproductive. I am materially more effective with a good night’s sleep.


GW: In May 2018 we are holding our members’ retreat on the subject of “transformational leadership”. What does this mean to you?

SC: Transformational leaders enable organizations to achieve positive change. They inspire others by gaining their trust and respect, and rally teams to achieve shared objectives.  They have a broad perspective and are resilient, and can see a way out when things don’t work. They embrace failure as learning and success as shared. The leaders I have learned the most from have displayed these traits and been generous in investing in their teams to expand their impact.