Entrepreneur

Let’s talk about ‘women in tech': Silicon Valley still has a gender problem

Women entrepreneurs don’t humblebrag

Over the years, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has spoken up about the reasons that women professionals do not command the respect they deserve. She argues in her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, that most women don’t aspire to positions of leadership and power, and for this reason, they are holding themselves back.

“Women don’t show off — men in Silicon Valley are boastful, but women are always apologizing,” said Vivek Wadwha, the commentator who incurred the wrath of the tech community when he addressed the poor treatment of women in the article “Silicon Valley: You and some of your VCs have a gender problem.”

Likewise, many of the tech conference organizers I spoke with complained that women are far less assertive about promoting themselves. In Silicon Valley, speaking gigs are a measure of power and influence.

DealMaker Media CEO Debbie Landa is under intense pressure to recruit female speakers, which she has to work much harder to accomplish. “I would have to reach out to 50 guys, and I reach out to 50 girls. I would have 45 guys say yes, and about two women,” she said.

“Men don’t typically seek validation from others. As a women in a leadership role or working toward a leadership role, it is important to trust your gut and move ahead with confidence in your decisions.”

Amanda MacNaughton, cofounder, PromoJam 

Even when a female entrepreneur or investor agrees to speak, Landa begins a search for a backup. She has found that women cancel four times more often than men. It’s not that women are flaky — far from it. In fact, Landa is impressed by the “get shit done” attitude of women entrepreneurs and investors. She said, “There is a lot of ego that goes into speaking at a conferences.”

The reluctance to brag isn’t just a Silicon Valley problem. Camila Ley Valentin, the cofounder of enterprise software startup Queue-it, was the first woman in tech to earn recognition at a female entrepreneurship awards ceremony in her native Denmark. To her dismay, she received email from other women in the industry lamenting that such an award even exists.

“I learned that many female entrepreneurs and developers view the existence of a female-focused entrepreneur award as condescending,” she said. In an ideal world, gender is a non-issue, but given that these problems persist, the award seems to be a step in the right direction.

A lack of confidence may also be preventing women from picking up technical skills.

One developer I spoke with, Jennifer Gilbert, said she receives two reactions from people when she describes teaching herself to code. The first group respond that they could never do it, and the second will stress that they could easily learn if they had time. The former group are almost always women.

“A cab driver who had known me for four blocks was sure enough of his programming abilities that he had me write down a few things for him to study,” she said. “Good for him, but you have to wonder why not a single one of my brilliant female acquaintances has expressed that same confidence.”

Too few women in science and engineering

Fewer women are graduating from computer science programs than ever before. In 2010, only 17 percent of computer science graduates are female (the most recent year that data is available), down from 28 percent in 2000, according to the NSF.

This is a problem that Hackbright Academy and Codecademy and its ilk are working to solve by teaching women to code. Universities like Harvey Mudd are also making a concerted effort — by mandate, 50 percent of its computer science students are women.

So why do the numbers refuse to shift, given that no scientific evidence exists that women are any less able to excel at the so-called STEM fields (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?

We already mentioned a few reasons: a lack of confidence, a negative workplace culture, and a lack of women in senior engineering positions who are willing to hire young female engineers.

Most likely, the problem is rooted in our early formative experiences. Girls are set on a path when they’re handed a Barbie doll rather than a Lego or DIY set.

“As we got further into our educations and careers, we saw the number of women around us decreasing,” Stanford-educated engineer Alice Brooks said. So Brooks and her team of female founders set out to build a toy, dubbed “Roominate” that lets young girls circuit-wire a dollhouse.

This idea became a company “Maykah,” which manufacturers toys for girls and far exceeded its fundraising goals on popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

We’re still a “generation away” from addressing the gender imbalance in tech, said Jaleh Bisharat, oDesk’s vice president of marketing. Bisharat believes that more young girls growing up with an appreciation of math and science is a requisite first step.

A lack of female mentors in tech

Wall Street Journal article on the tyrannical reign of the “Queen Bee” came to the conclusion that something is amiss in the professional sisterhood.

“Some women are finding their professional lives dominated by high school mean girls all grown up: women with something to prove and a precarious sense of security,” the author concluded.

A 2011 survey of 1,000 working women by the American Management Association found that 95 percent of respondents believed they were undermined by another woman at some point in their careers.

Richardson, an experienced tech exec, admitted some women of her generation struggled through years in the “old boys club” without help, and some aren’t as sympathetic as they could be. She said, “There is something in between coddling and tough that is probably the right answer.”

Most of the young women I spoke with for this article have struggled to find a female mentor. Many of them said they feared this would prevent them from growing in their careers.

“Unlike their male counterparts, not enough successful women in tech are reinvesting in us,” said Falon Fatemi, a twentysomething Silicon Valley-based startup consultant.

This sentiment was shared by Knotch’s cofounders, who are in their 20s as well and revealed that the female investors they approached tried to overcompensate by “pounding their intelligence.” It took almost a year for them to find a mentor in Draper Fisher Jurvetson’s Alexandra Johnson, who “loved the fact that we maintain our girliness while running this company,” said Knotch’s cofounder Anda Gansca.

In Silicon Valley, it’s unfair to give the impression that all experienced female tech execs are catty queen bees.

Cindy Padnos, a managing partner for investment firm Illuminate Ventures, said she makes as much time as she can for young female entrepreneurs, as do many of the women on her advisory board.

It may simply be a numbers problem that will improve over time. Just 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, as noted in Deborah Rhode’s and Barbara Kellerman’s book, Women and Leadership. Meanwhile, female college grads are increasingly joining the technology workforce and are desperate for their guidance.

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