A Look at Social Values in Silicon Valley

Written by Eden Gibson. Graphics by Marc Liu.

Silicon Valley is known for many things — warm weather, pricey housing, and egregious traffic included — but it truly reigns supreme in two areas: tech startups and social liberalism.

The Bay Area is widely considered one of the most left-leaning regions in the United States. But it’s also arguably the most prominent hub of technology in the country, filled with college graduates armed with CS degrees scrambling to secure internships at Big Tech companies and startups alike. This comes as no surprise, given that Google, Facebook, and Tesla headquarters all lie within biking distance of Stanford’s campus.

In many ways, Silicon Valley’s two claims to fame go hand-in-hand. The region’s emphasis on technological innovation cultivates open-mindedness and an eagerness for growth, where pioneering entrepreneurs strive to design the future rather than dwell on the past.

But the inevitable competition between engineering students can breed a culture of extreme ambition — of outcompeting peers and colleagues to become the next Steve Jobs, even at the expense of others.

How does the tech industry’s atmosphere of ambition and competition fit into Silicon Valley’s liberal mold? And how do we see this discrepancy reflected on Stanford’s campus — a breeding ground for future tech entrepreneurs?

It’s no surprise that Stanford — a private university nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley — is overwhelmingly liberal. But even on a campus where left-leaning attitudes appear ubiquitous, we still see some variance in students’ social values. When we compare CS majors to students in all other disciplines, we find that students studying CS seem to care more about personal success while retaining more socially conservative views.

We first looked at students’ responses to three questions from last year’s Marriage Pact survey that address ambition, comparing students’ average levels of agreement with the statements on a scale of 1–7.

The first question we looked at focused specifically on financial success: “It’s important that I make more money than my peers.”

CS majors’ responses averaged at 3.87 out of 7, while non-CS majors came in at 3.4.

Next, we focused on a broader question addressing ambition: “I do whatever it takes to get ahead.”

The divide was slightly less pronounced on this question, with CS majors and non-CS majors averaging at 3.98 and 3.69, respectively.

Finally, we assessed students’ opinions on ambition by examining how attractive they find it in others.

As expected based on our last two findings, CS majors agreed with this statement more than non-CS majors, averaging at 3.82 (as opposed to non-CS majors at 3.53).

While the averages for both groups of students never surpassed the midpoint at 4 for any of the three questions, we still see a clear distinction between students pursuing CS and their peers in the Arts and Sciences.

But is the palpable pressure to “make it big” in Silicon Valley actually correlated with students’ views on social issues? In other words, do students’ desires for personal success bleed into their political beliefs or decrease their social awareness?

To uncover some answers, we looked at three more questions assessing students’ stances on hot-button issues pertaining to the environment, gender roles, and LGBTQ+ rights.

We first found that non-CS majors tend to care about reducing their personal carbon footprint. In response to the statement “I go to great lengths to minimize my harm to the planet,” CS students averaged at 3.90, while all other students averaged at 4.16.

Next, we turned our attention to a question about gender: “Gender roles exist for a good reason.”

While most students at Stanford tend to oppose rather than adhere to gendered attitudes (based on the low average across the board), this divide is especially intriguing, given that the CS department has nearly twice as many men than women.

Our final question — “I’m comfortable with my child being gay” — generated high levels of agreement across the board. Nonetheless, we saw a small gap between CS majors (5.53) and non-CS majors (5.97).

On all three questions assessing political and social attitudes, non-CS majors leaned further to the left than their CS counterparts.

In assessing our results, it’s crucial to acknowledge that setting ambitious goals for a career in CS and maintaining prosocial attitudes are not mutually exclusive. Because computer science is such a popular major, it houses students from an incredibly wide variety of backgrounds and ways of thinking. And as students in the school of engineering display an increasing awareness for the societal impact of their work — as demonstrated by the “tech-lash” sweeping campus last year — it would be negligent to label all computer science majors as selfish and politically unaware.

But it is important to think about the values that circulate within communities of computer scientists and engineers on campus. After all, many of the students in Stanford’s CS department will shape the future of the tech industry. Stanford is developing the next generation of software engineers, AI specialists, and entrepreneurs — what kinds of ideologies will these students carry with them to Big Tech corporations and startups alike?

As the demand for young, bright, innovative problem solvers in Silicon Valley continues to increase, it is imperative we understand the values that will define the tech industry in the years to come.

Eden Gibson is a writer on the Marriage Pact team. She can be reached at eden3 ‘at’ stanford.edu. Marc Liu is a designer on the Marriage Pact team. He can be reached at marcis ‘at’ mooorc.com.

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