Jolie O'Dell, formerly of Mashable and now at VentureBeat, said in a later tweet that she was reacting to the fact that all of the women-led startups at a conference she was covering were in traditionally female spaces. She added in a reply, "Because I refuse to believe those smart, talented women are making the best use of their time & skills to change the world."
Normative statements like "best use" and "embarrassment" are sure to piss off women who are making money, or trying to, in these businesses, which are lucrative markets. Are all the men at the conference "changing the world"? As a Forbes commenter pointed out, "Does that mean that men should be embarrassed by all the car and gadget sites they have founded over the years?" (Ahem.) Women starting businesses shouldn't be held to a higher standard of social value than men are.
Meanwhile, no one worries about men starting... parenting and shopping sites. Buyosphere founder Tara Hunt notes, "Diapers.com was founded by two men. They are super rich now. Zappos.com was founded by men. They've done pretty well. Amazon, Bluefly, Kaboodle, Shopstyle, Stylefeeder, eBay…the list goes on."
J. Maureen Henderson canvassed a bunch of women in the field for their responses (O'Dell declined further comment) and the nuanced responses show that — gasp — even women who are building shopping or parenting sites aren't Barbie fembots.
Erica Douglass, CEO of Whoosh Traffic, said we should be less worried about women working on "female" startups and more about the scale of their ambition. "Many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic – Diapers.com, etsy – were founded by men. Women aren't thinking big enough with their start-ups. While men are fiercely competing to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or eBay, women-led start-ups seem to focus on tiny niches. We need more women founders who are willing to build billion-dollar businesses."
And Carla Thompson, Founder and CEO of Sharp Skirts, called the tweet "crass, badly worded" but also wondered if women didn't "trust themselves enough to step outside their comfort zones. However, applying such a broad brush and stereotyping all of us in one fell swoop is even more frustrating. We're up against enough these days; think before you tweet."
Of course, it would be great if the businesses started by women reflected women's diverse interests, skills, and passions. But the barriers are many, we're pretty early into the process, and it's a lot of extra pressure on the few women who have put themselves out there so far to do it. Not to mention internalized sexism about the traditionally "girly." Hunt writes,
Because, well, it's embarrassing because we are so few and there is so much hope pinned on our performance. We've been begging and screaming to get included and then we show up in high heels talking about designer snugglies and nailpolish. Damn these women being all womeny talking about women stuff! Who invited these ones to the party? Where are the serious female entrepreneurs?
Not that hard to find, as it turns out.