Accounting For The Lack Of Women In Technology And Startups

There is the sexism of a "potential backer" inviting you to go yachting by sending a naked photo of himself on the boat, or being mistaken for a secretary. And then there is the "women don't raise their hands" conundrum.

It's been a big week for discussions of women in technology and start-ups, spurred by a big New York Times story on the lack of high-ranking women in Silicon Valley and a New York Magazine's piece on New York-area startups touching on the male domination of the scene (the author, occasional Jezebel contributor Doree Shafrir, says in the piece she's recommended tech meetups to single female friends.)

The stories and issues recounted in both will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the issues of women in business — the roles of women in tech entrepreneurship being a sort of ur-example of those issues, given how few women pursue careers in the field and decide to strike it on their own. But there is the type of thing that makes good copy, like these anecdotes from the Times piece:

She learned how to handle male-dominated pitches early in her career, when Rivals.com was buying another start-up. She was in the conference room, pouring a cup of coffee, when the other company's executives and lawyers walked in. They proceeded to discuss the lowest bid they would accept, as if she wasn't there.

"They assumed I was the admin," or secretary, she says. When the group sat down to negotiate, she adds, "Their faces went white as ghosts."

And

She recalls one venture capitalist telling her that it didn't matter that she didn't have business cards, because all they would say was "Mom.

... and then there are the blurrier issues — who gets mentored, who gets funded, choosing stability over the vicissitudes of startup culture — that don't look like outright exclusion, but are still contributing to the lack of women working in this field. And while plenty of women have faced such outright discrimination of the former, the latter is undoubtedly more prevalent.

It's those more subtle factors that make it hard to know where to start. Here's what media consultant (and former Gawker editor) Elizabeth Spiers wrote in response to the New York piece:

The problem isn't funding, it's a lack of female entrepreneurs. (And it's a little ironic that some of the people complaining aren't willing to start—or at least haven't started—companies themselves.) Every female entrepreneur I know shopping for funding right now is getting meetings and commitments. But there aren't too many of them.

I think one reason for this is that women are socialized to be more cautious about risk taking. And setting up the average startup is usually a lot more risk intensive than starting a blog and putting up some Google ad sense links. It's being responsible for a weekly payroll, dealing with crap like benefits administration and renegotiating your leases, managing investor expectations while doing additional fundraising, and so on... If you're a woman and unhappy that the tech scene looks the way it does, go start your own company. Put up or shut up.

Not only are women "socialized to be more cautious about risk-taking," they're often looking down the line at completely different expectations of family life, ones that make joining a larger company rather entrepreneurship more appealing. Here's one woman in The New York Times:

Ms. Vijayashanker is starting her company now, partly because she wants to have a family in a few years and says the tech start-up lifestyle isn't hospitable to child-rearing. That's why, she says, many young women prefer working at big companies to starting their own.

"Girls have certain family goals they want to accomplish," she says. "Working 60 hours a week is difficult because it requires a life sacrifice."

Another woman tells the Times that she didn't go into engineering because "I need more human interaction." And on the more social ends of the tech industry in its various pockets, where networking happens, that human interaction can often be within a pretty narrow sphere. Here's Elizabeth Stark, who teaches about tech issues at Yale, in New York:

If we just keep it status quo, for all the reasons defined in these self-reinforcing networks, they will stay self-reinforcing with the white, geeky, male, Stanford/Harvard-dropout types. And that's who a lot of the V.C.'s are investing in. If I had a bunch of money, I would start a firm for women tomorrow."

In a follow-up piece in The Huffington Post, Stark writes that she herself fell prey to that self-reinforcing social image:

Paired with an old male [computer science] professor as an advisor, and the only woman in a sea of geeky males. I chose to study social science instead.

In retrospect, I wish that I had chosen differently, or at least given it more of a chance. But back then, in light of my serious interest in technology, I had decided that I would rather pursue the impact of technology on society than pursue the building of it via Computer Science. Had I had a mentor that encouraged me to pursue Computer Science, I likely could have been convinced otherwise.

There are some female mentors out there now — a Vogue profile of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, for example, says she has monthly dinners with high-profile guests for Women of Silicon Valley, and that she pushed for "child-care programs, maternity-leave policies, or preferred parking places reserved for expectant women" at Google and now Facebook.

Of all the reasons given to explain the lack of women in these fields, this was the one that resonated the most for me. From the Times:

In a study of 493 undergraduate engineering majors' intentions to continue with their major, men tended to stick with their studies as long as they completed the coursework, while women did so only if they earned high grades.

Fittingly, one woman is quoted saying that she didn't start her company "until she had worked at four more companies. 'I have to know everything; I have to have it all figured out,' she recalls thinking." In other words, even the smart, self-directed, relatively privileged women who would be prime candidates for heading start-ups often lack the blind confidence to go it alone. That confidence can at times be unfounded, but as the saying goes, you can't win if you don't play.

There is, however, a ray of hope. From New York:

"Today, Amazon has their hosting platform, Amazon Web Services. Facebook has their identity platform, Facebook Connect," says John Borthwick, co-founder of Betaworks, which builds and invests in start-ups. "If you want to build something now, you can build it on top of these building blocks. What it means is the cost of development goes down. The cost of entry goes down."

He was speaking generally, but the same could apply to any outsiders from the all-male, mostly white (and immigrant) tech sector, who might be intimidated by the belief that their skills aren't up to snuff.

Out Of The Loop In Silicon Valley [NYT]
What She Saw At The Revolution [Vogue]
Tweet Tweet Boom Boom [NYM]
Re Doree's Article [Spiersblr]