How VCs can solve the woman problem, if there is one

There’s a lack of women in the startup economy, but it’s not a problem.

First of all, if diversity was really a problem in the startup world, VCs would be solving it.  Because VCs like making money, and VCs are great at seeing an opening market and jumping on it.

Second, women are not victims. Women are not powerless. If women wanted to do tech startups, they’d be doing them.

Women don’t want to do them because it is a lifestyle that is renowned for being unglamorous, living hell and completely incompatible with kids.

Recently on VentureBeat, Drs. Scott and Klein wrote about how the lack of diversity in tech startups is a huge problem. They say, “It’s not a pipeline problem,” referring to the gender balance in math and engineering classes. And they’re right. Because women can do startups without any sort of engineering degree. I did three times. But it is a pipeline problem in that women don’t want to do startups.

That’s right. Women don’t want to do startups because women want children.

Startups are a 125 percent job. They take over your life. They are singular in focus, and they are very high risk. These are all things men are much, much more likely than women to enjoy. Most women simply do not want this life.

We know this because, in general, when women have kids, they scale back their careers, and men don’t, according to Catalyst Research. And Pew Research reports that most women who have kids would rather work part-time than either be home with kids full-time or work full-time. With this data, it’s a no-brainer that most women with kids really don’t want startups.

What about women without kids? Women in their 20s outperform men in school for most of their life, and when they leave school, they outearn men (until they have kids.)  So surely women in their 20s feel they can do whatever they want in the workforce.

The thing is, women in their late 20s are the happiest they will be in their whole life. They are very happy. So I don’t think they are walking around wishing they could do a startup. I don’t think they care.

Also, there is just no solid evidence that there are women who have chosen to do a startup, doing all the work that men have — networking endlessly, living on no salary for years, sharing an apartment with six friends, ending their social life in favor of their work life — and have not had the same results: funding. Women who are willing to do that stuff are probably able to get funding.

The problem is that the funding world is set up to reward behaviors of 22-year-old guys. Living on very little salary, working very long hours, making your whole life your company, traveling at the drop of a hat — these are things people do when they do not have families. It’s a life that guys who are not even in a startup choose because it’s fun for guys. Women don’t choose that kind of life.

So if VCs want more women to do startups they need to change the equation:

  1. Pay more money at the beginning. Women want a good house, good clothes and a cushion for emergencies. This is not sexist, this is basic research, and yes there are exceptions, but we have to talk in generalizations if we are going to talk about women as a group. Women shop more than men; women get more pleasure from buying stuff than men do. Whatever. Who cares? Women earn more than men do, so it’s a moot point. Except in the VC world, where the entrepreneur has to “bootstrap.” Women don’t like that.

    So VCs would have to give up on the bootstrapping mentality if they want women to do startups.

  2. VCs would need to give up on speed. They would need to decide that their rate of return on investment can be slower, and they would need to learn how to invest in companies that could go a little slower. Such companies would want to take short breaks during summer vacation, for example, when the kids are home.  VCs would have to be more patient, with a family-friendly policy toward growth and exits.
  3. VCs would need to raise their own funds differently. You say, “Slow and easy? Then it’s not a startup!” And that might be true. But if we are really missing so many opportunities because women’s ideas are not getting through to market, then the market is probably so desperate for these ideas that VCs can afford to let them develop more slowly. And if someone would get to the market faster, well, then we are not really missing out on having women’s ideas in the status quo, are we?

So I challenge the VCS to either step up and say they don’t care about funding women or to change the way they fund startups run by women so they can get to the ideas they say the startup world is missing.

And in the meantime, let’s stop pretending that the stuff of startups is the stuff that most women want for their lives. Women should use a more current blueprint for their lives—one that takes into account what is important to women rather than what is important to men.

Penelope Trunk is the founder founder of three startups. Her most recent is Brazen Careerist. She blogs about her startup life at penelopetrunk.com.

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