Managers in Silicon Valley call it the “Dave rule”: to assure proper gender balance you must have at least as many women on your team as guys named Dave.

It is an inside joke delivered, depending on who says it, with a smile or wince, because women are indeed vastly underrepresented in the technology industry.

It sounded even less funny this week after a female former executive of Tinder filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company, claiming she was ousted amid a barrage of sexist and racist comments.

Whitney Wolfe, the former vice-president of marketing for the dating app, said Justin Mateen, the chief marketing officer, called her a “whore” and that Sean Rad, the CEO, ignored the abuse when she complained.

Tinder’s parent company, IAC, has suspended Mr. Mateen pending an investigation, but that did little to contain accusations that Silicon Valley was a frathouse culture hostile not just to women but also black people, Latinos and those over a certain age.

The dominance of young white and Asian males in startups and corporate behemoths has been under renewed scrutiny since May when Google published its first diversity report, revealing that 70 per cent of its global workforce is male. Of its U.S. staff, 61 per cent are white, 30 per cent Asian, 3 per cent Hispanic and 2 per cent black. Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo! followed suit, revealing similar disparities.

The reports earned plaudits for transparency. Google was praised for subsequently announcing a $50 million project to encourage and train female programmers.

But interviews with tech workers and observers in San Francisco and the Bay area underlined the multiple challenges in transforming the industry’s culture and demographics.

One manager of a 20-strong software engineering team at a well-known company said he would like to hire more women, but his only female worker recently moved to another project. “Now we don’t even apply the Dave rule,” he said.

Socially awkward geeks struggled to make accomplished female coders feel welcome, he said. “Some of the younger ones especially have a hard time relating to women as ordinary people.” Sara Haider, 28, a female programmer who headed a team at Twitter before moving to the anonymous app Secret, said the key was for women to start young — and be tough.

“The best way to get more women in the industry is to have girls coding. It comes down to the small decisions you make as a child. I was always into geeky things and started coding when I was nine.” Ms. Haider said women needed to show no fear in male-dominated environments. “I’m physically not [intimidated]. If anyone gave me any crap I’d just beat them up,” she laughed.

She lamented that women often undersold themselves in wage negotiations even if they were high performing: “If managers don’t take that into account then women will be under-compensated.”

In May a group of nine women in tech posted a manifesto in which they complained about being harassed, belittled and groped. “What we want most is for people to read and understand what death by a thousand cuts feels like, and then understand why we feel sad and angry at the tech industry. We also want you to understand that more still needs to be done.” Fred Turner, a Stanford University expert on the technology industry and American cultural history, said Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs and managers espoused meritocracy but often used “likeness” to themselves as a shorthand for quality. “Oh, he’s like me, he must be good.”

California’s hippy communes in the 1960s abjured formal rules and bureaucracy and espoused egalitarianism, yet white males ended up running them, reflecting stereotypical societal norms — a pattern of patriarchy repeated by startups, said Mr. Turner.

Another alleged Silicon Valley sin — ageism — punishes men and women. A survey by the company PayScale found that of 32 leading U.S. tech firms only six had an average age over 35 — a seeming reflection of the famous claim by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that young people were “just smarter”.

Executives and venture capitalists in their 30s, 40s and 50, terrified of looking “avuncular”, routinely seek Botox and fillers, said Seth Matarasso, a San Francisco dermatologist. “They go the gym, they alter their diet, they dress young — and then they come here, the final frontier, facial work.” The clinic is the second biggest dispenser of Botox in the U.S., according to Mr. Matarasso.

Some tech clients enter via a back door to avoid being seen, he said. “It has to be quick, something they can do on a lunch break, and it has to be surreptitious, very under the radar.” He said he tried to dampen expectations of appeasing the cult of youth. “I have to tell them that a little bit of filler or squirt of Botox may make you feel more confident but it won’t get you a new job.”

© Guardian News & Media 2014