Why Won't Silicon Valley Take Teen Girls Seriously?
Young women can make or break tech products, so why doesn't Silicon Valley respect them?
When a well-known venture capitalist refused to fund an anonymous social media app that allowed high schoolers to see who liked each other in 2012, the reason he gave was clear: the founders were too focused on cultivating a user base of young women. At the time, 70% of the app's users were teenage girls.
"All truly transformative technology like this needs a great beachhead," the investor wrote to co-founder Nikita Bier in his rejection email. "It didn't seem like young women was the right beachhead for this product."
Bier disagreed and continued to pursue the product, eventually launching the app under the name TBH. Buoyed by its popularity with teen girls, the app skyrocketed to success. It hit the top of the app store rankings and within 73 days of launch it was acquired by Facebook for $100 million.
Teenage girls can make or break a tech product, but Silicon Valley almost never gives them the respect they deserve. Teen girls have played a pivotal role in the success of nearly every major social platform including MySpace, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat, Vine, Twitter, and TikTok.
"If you look at a lot of big products, they started with this market," said Alison Gorman, founder of TruFaves, a recommendations app. And yet, she added, "I think products targeted toward teen girls are dismissed."
On the platforms teen girls do embrace, they drive an enormous amount of engagement. Teen girls are more likely than teen boys, for instance, to say that they use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, a recent report by The Pew Research center found. Teen girls are also more likely than boys to say that it would be very difficult to give up social media.
On social platforms, teen girls dominate the influencer landscape and are more social. 78% of teen girls who made friends online do so through social media, while only 52% of boys do the same, according to an earlier Pew study.
Yet every day, girls face relentless misogyny, paternalism, harassment, and abuse online. Academics and pundits constantly debate social media's impact on their health. Teen girls are maligned and mocked and their power in the tech landscape is almost never recognized.
"They simply do not get it," Emma Bates, co-founder and CEO of Diem, a social search engine powered by women’s conversations, said of most Silicon Valley executives. "Unless they have a wife or daughter or sister who they can ask, they want to believe [teenage girls] are some sort of trivial thing. When you point out the hard numbers they sometimes start to recognize the opportunity, but until that point they think of [apps that cater to young women] as being silly girl things and you can't get them out of that headspace."
Not only do Silicon Valley investors and executives refuse to fund products built for young women, they mock them. Big time investors make misogynistic comments toward young women online, rarely fund young female founders, and are overtly sexist in the way that they view technology, such as tweeting that TikTok is causing young women to stop reproducing. It's no surprise that female founding teams garner just 2.3% of all VC funding.
"Consistently, teenage girls drive popular culture forward and then get mocked for their troubles," the journalist Constance Grady wrote in 2021. "They’re ridiculed so often that we have an endless stream of trendy new words to describe teenage girls whose tastes we find cringeworthy: basic, VSCO girls, cheugy."
"A lot of people invest in what they can identify with," said Carla Engelbrecht, founder of Betweened, a social media platform for kids, "and when you're in a space where so many of the investors and so many of the tech creators and developers are male, I think there's probably the teenage girls space is the hardest for many [men in tech] to identify with."
Yet teenage girls remain a powerful economic and cultural force, wielding that power over apps that don't prioritize their safety or user experience.
You'd think that Silicon Valley would learn lessons from social media, and build the next generation of tech products to protect the young, female users who lead to their products' success. But AI is already being used to generate non consensual deepfake porn, even among high schoolers. The underage perpetrators and the male founder pioneering this sort of technology have faced few if any repercussions.
Meanwhile, sites like Twitter have stripped API access away from valuable tools like Block Party, a platform that helps users, especially young women, mitigate online harassment. And newly unredacted documents from Meta show that the company sought to engineer its products specifically to maximize engagement rather than protect teen girls' mental health. Andreessen Horowitz just invested in an AI platform that profits from non-consensual porn.
Laura Mae Brown, founder and CEO of Spark Creative Play, an art app for young people said that "unfortunately, everything comes down to money in Silicon Valley, and unless there's a detrimental business impact" tech executives will continue to dismiss teen girls. This will likely continue in large part because of the demographic makeup of Silicon Valley itself. "Behind every female founder is a bunch of male VCs and behind every female founder is male board members," she said.
Tessa Brown, CEO and cofounder of Germ Network, an early stage startup rebuilding secure messaging for young adult women, agreed that it's a money-first landscape, but said that funding more women can lead to a meaningful shift. "The answer is fund us," she said. "Give young women entrepreneurs the same chances you're giving young men entrepreneurs because we're solving young women's problems.
They have their old boys club, we need a girls club."