The blockbuster headline news out of this year's "State of the Valley" conference and detailed "Index" report was that the so-called "gender gap" in pay for men and women is bigger as they obtain advanced degrees.
That lingering question hung around well after the early February conference. Details are outlined in the report on median incomes (not average) available online at siliconvalleyindicators.org. But a nutshell version is that men with advanced graduate degrees have median annual incomes of $123,000 compared with about $73,000 for women with such degrees.
It's almost as bad for bachelor's degrees, with men receiving $90,000 compared with $54,000 for women, according to the Index.
On surface, such a gap might be expected to raise eyebrows, hackles, even anger. It's far higher than in other regions where median incomes are generally smaller anyway. And there is much yet to be learned about the causes and possible remedial steps to narrow the gap.
Yet the Index scrupulously avoids proposing "solutions," sticking to basic details of what's happening economically in the Valley which wraps around the South Bay and extends up the San Francisco Peninsula even unto The City itself.
Joint Venture President and CEO Russell Hancock repeatedly underscores the fact-based nature of the Index and conference. Yet he is willing to discuss the implications of the findings as an individual, which we did recently over a lunch in Palo Alto, where he resides.
First, he noted, the existence of a gender gap in pay is a longstanding, well-known fact. The news this year is the size and relation to advanced degrees.
"This is huge; this is really huge," he said of the size of the gap, which caught him and his consultants by surprise.
"I didn't see that coming," he said. The data "does not say that if you have a man and woman working side by side, that the man is making more. That's not what it says. It's saying 'across the region.'
"Everybody's first question is, 'What's going on here? Is there a conspiracy?' Maybe there is. Maybe there's a terrible conspiracy out there, but that's not what the data are saying. We have no basis to conclude that on the basis of the data.
"What we think is more plausible is that there are more things going on here, and that women are not electing to enter into the more highly paying sectors. And they probably have their reasons. One reason would be to enter and exit, the so-called 'mommy track.'
"Women are exiting for children, and when they want to enter back in they find that they can't enter at the same level, or they have to start over. Meanwhile, men have continuously climbed the ladder. So that's there. That's straightforward. We know that.
"A second factor is women aren't going into the same fields. And we do have data on that. Men are going into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and these other high-paying things. Women are going into other areas.
"There's always been a gender gap in the sciences, in computers, coders, and we've seen women going into areas that are not as managerial, are not as tech-heavy.
"Which leads to a third thing, which is cultural," where things get shaky in terms of hard data. "I'm not speaking from the standpoint of data. We would actually have to do studies. We would have to do surveys."
But those who study culture and gender observe that traits that are perceived in men as strong and decisive are interpreted as something else in women executives and managers, and women tend to avoid those tracks, also called a "pipeline" to higher-level positions.
"People are working on the pipeline. A lot of people will say we have a pipeline issue. We need to channel more women into higher-paying fields. They need to be going into science and math. They need to be going into business school and take the manager track."
Yet that's a generations-long process, as long, perhaps, as raising children.
"What you can't overcome is biology. If women are family minded. ... Yet even there society is evolving. The nature of work is changing. You really can work from home. You really do juggle."
One factor is part-time work, which many women see as an answer to balancing one's life, Hancock noted. And therein "lies the conspiracy," as such jobs often lack benefits that are reported as income, and because "part-time often means working full time for half-pay."
To make the gap worse, "There are talent wars at the high end. That's what we are generating in Silicon Valley: We are generating high-end jobs. We used to generate middle jobs, lots of mid-range professional jobs: guys who worked at Lockheed, lived in tract houses in Sunnyvale and mowed their own lawns, right?
"Now we have an economy that's not creating those jobs. It's just creating jobs for entrepreneurs and VCs, finance people and scientists, coders, architects, all of that. And these are all starting six-figures and going up and getting into bidding wars because there is less talent, and it's men filling those jobs.
"And we're also skewed at the low end. Those wages have been stagnant," for men and women.
"The 'conspiracy' I think is powerful market forces. You have two things happening. One is that companies aren't creating jobs locally. They're creating jobs globally for very sensible reasons, and you can't overcome those forces. It just makes perfect sense, fiduciary and otherwise.
"A second thing is we've eliminated so many jobs. Technology really has displaced most support positions. ... This is the unsupported economy."
This echoes decades later with Kurt Vonnegut's "Player Piano" vision of a high-tech world where computers have displaced skilled machinists making perfect bolts, leaving the machinists to fill potholes. Only today those are high-tech bolts.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.