Entrepreneur

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

I tweeted to female entrepreneurs and developers to ask whether they enjoy the “women in tech” conversation or avoid it, and why. I hit a nerve and received dozens of responses, which we compiled using Storify. Check it out at the bottom.  

THE NUMBERS

  • Women contribute to just 1.2 percent of open source software and 5 percent of patents.
  • Women represent less than ten percent of venture capitalists.
  • In a McKinsey survey, 36 percent of men said they want to be CEO. Only 18 percent of women said the same.
  • Women hold only 14 percent of executive officer positions, the Catalyst Census reports.
  • Only 3 percent of tech startups are formed by women (Kauffman Foundation).

Silicon Valley’s tech industry still has a gender problem.

The woman-in-tech topic has been debated ad nauseam for years. You might be bored sick of it, but the numbers refuse to budge.

“We don’t want to be seen as crazy bitches moaning about the same issue,” explained Jenn Wei, a twentysomething investor at Blumberg Capital, when asked about the lack of women in venture capital.

Women represent less than 10 percent of venture capitalists, and they have been leaving the industry at twice the rate of men, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Wei is well aware of the gender imbalance and has written about it, but said she is fearful about “overplaying the victim card.”

For this reason, women in the male-dominated tech industry have historically shunned the topic, particularly in conversations with the press.

Former Epiphany chief executive Karen Richardson was one of the few women executives in tech in the 1990s and 2000s, and she spent most of her career deflecting questions about gender. It was considered “whiny and snively” to draw attention to it, she said.

But the tide is changing. With the emergence of all-female workshops, meetups, and social groups like Women 2.0 and Women Who Code, many female entrepreneurs that were shy are now forcing the issue. And better yet, they are banding together with men — and each other — to actively make improvements.

“For the first time in over 30 years, the gender conversation can be a productive dialogue,” Richardson said.

We can all stand to benefit from a more balanced workforce. A recent report from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology observed that gender and ethnic diversity in a workplace strengthens decision-making, and diverse teams tend to be more innovative. Women-led startups are proving to be more capital-efficient, and venture-backed 
companies run by a woman have 12 percent higher revenues than others, according to research by Illuminate Ventures.

Many women say it’s a great time to be in tech, although they believe there is a long journey ahead and much progress still needs to be made. The primary problems they currently face, and their suggested solutions are the following:

‘It was harder for me to gain the same level of respect…’

Knotch-girls

Above: Knotch’s team (L-R): CEO Anda Gansca, Designer Rebecca Chaika, CTO Stephanie Volftsun.

Stephanie Volftsun is the technical lead at all-female tech startup, which is a surprise to most people that she meets.

Female chief technical officers and senior engineers are a rare breed in Silicon Valley. Why? Women’s share of bachelor’s degrees in computer science at colleges and universities is decreasing, according to the National Science Foundation.

Volfstun is the daughter of Russian immigrants — both engineers — and has been coding for most of her life. At 23, she is a “full stack” engineer, meaning that she can build mobile stack, web stack, or native applications for her startup, Knotch.

Volftsun would earn a six-figure salary at any tech company, but she is reluctant to work at a male-dominated tech startup again.

“At college, I didn’t feel the pressure of being the only girl in my computer science classes because everyone starts out on a blank slate and you have your grades to build you up,” Volftsun said.

“Women had to prove to the world that they were as good and as capable in tech roles as men.”

Dorothy Creaven,
CEO of Element Software

As a professional (she landed her first job as a back-end engineer at financial technology startup Addepar), she found it more difficult to prove herself to her fellow developers. “It was harder for me to gain the same level of respect my male peers had,” she said.

This perspective is shared by hundreds of women in the tech industry, according to a report by the Level Playing Field Institute. Its 2011 study found that IT workplaces, including tech startups, can create hostile or unpleasant environments for women and people of color, prompting those employees to seek out other industries.

The problem isn’t just too few female engineering grads — it’s that junior-level programmers are leaving the industry in their droves.

The NSF conducted deeper research that revealed that workplace culture is a big problem. In a survey of almost 4,000 female engineers, a third of respondents said they left the industry due to a bad boss or negative working environment.

One quote from the NSF report is particularly troubling, especially as it reflects the experience of many women: “At my last engineering job, women were fed up with the culture: arrogant, inflexible, completely money-driven, sometimes unethical, intolerant of differences in values and priorities. I felt alienated in spite of spending my whole career trying to act like a man.”

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.

Discrimination: The way women are treated

Some commentators argue that women simply aren’t choosing to be in tech and aren’t treated poorly at all.

Wadhwa has conducted years of research on this topic. He vehemently disagrees. “Women in the tech industry aren’t treated right, and that’s a fact,” he told me.

His team at Stanford, in conjunction with the Kauffman Foundation and Women 2.0, recently completed a survey of 500 women tech entrepreneurs.

The preliminary results found that 18 percent of women in tech had experienced discrimination. According to the research, which will be publicly released in a few months, the average tech workplace is a less-than-inviting environment for women and minorities, who deal with negative workplace experiences at much higher rates than do their white male counterparts.

One potential issue is that human resources is typically lacking at early-stage tech startups. Jokes and wisecrack comments might appear harmless to some, but women and minority groups may perceive them as offensive.

A friend who recently relocated to Silicon Valley to join a cloud computing startup’s marketing team, admitted that she often feels uncomfortable by off-hand remarks and comments. For instance, a manager will joke in front of her male colleagues that she should clearly be the one to present to potential customers. By his tone, it is clear to the team that this has nothing to do with her knowledge or intelligence.

Women will often reveal how they’re really treated by their bosses, colleagues, and potential investors in private, but will rarely agree to be quoted. Take a look at the media frenzy around the Kleiner Perkins sexism scandal to understand why women might be reluctant to speak up.

Obstacles in the fundraising process

When Anda Gansca and Stephanie Volftsun first met, they had a gut instinct about starting a company together. For one thing, they were both sick of being the only women in the room.

“I told her [Gansca] I would never work for a man again,” Volftsun half-joked, referring to her recent stint as a data aggregation engineer at a Silicon Valley startup. Little did they know that in a few short months, the cofounders would be leaving meetings with investors who simply couldn’t get past the “woman thing.”

“Our gender is almost always the strongest thing they remember,” she said.

“According to most investors, an entrepreneur looks like Mark Zuckerberg: a white guy dropping out of Stanford or Harvard,” said Wadwha, who argues that investors too often “shun” women.

About 38 percent of U.S. businesses are owned by women, yet just 2 percent of the money invested by venture capital firms goes to women-owned firms, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners and Wells Fargo & Co.

Indeed, groups of investors typically fund hackers fresh from male-dominated tech accelerator or incubator programs.

“There is a bias toward technical founders in the Valley, and that contributes because there are far fewer women techies than there are guys,” said Jon Soberg, an investor at Blumberg Capital. “Networking is very important in VC, and given the industry has always been male-dominated, most VCs’ networks are male-dominated, and hiring often comes from the network,” he explained.

“I can tell you that a large swath of male investors who made money from Google or PayPal will never look at a female-led business,” Richardson agreed.

Many entrepreneurs tell me that fundraising is a difficult process for anyone. For women and other minorities, it’s darn near impossible to tell if they are denied funding because the product isn’t good enough or for a more sinister reason.

The Knotch team was successful in securing $500,000 for their app, but it was an ordeal. Gansca said they were consistently told by angel investors to consider pivoting to a “social network for women” (the founders are building a sentiment analysis tool, and 60 percent of its users are men).

More concerning is that Gansca was approached by investors who feigned interest in her startup but were more interested in her. “I can recognize now if it’s about Knotch or not — if not, I’ll instantly cut it off,” she said.

Padnos believes that women entrepreneurs would benefit from the opportunity to meet female partners like herself. Before she moved into venture capital and was fundraising for her startup Vivant, there were less than a handful of female investors.

However, Padnos is encouraged that more women are choosing to pursue angel investing and venture capital — or start their own firms. Her own Illuminate Ventures, Aileen Lee’s Cowboy Ventures, and Kristen Green’s Forerunner Ventures all have women leaders. Entrepreneurs can now access support from angel investor networks Golden Seeds and Astia.

What are the solutions?

Having the conversation is a start

A female founder of a trendy New York startup, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that she’s willing to be blunt about all the inglorious aspects of entrepreneurship — with one exception. She is reluctant to discuss her experiences as a female founder.

Why? She doesn’t want to be held up as some kind of example. “I feel this pressure to be hyper-successful or somehow I’d be letting down all women in the industry,” she said.

“I talk about women in tech online for the sake of my daughters. I want them to have the opportunity to grow and be great — not encounter the discouragement and discrimination I did.”

Ana Redmond, a software developer building educational apps.

The conversation may be uncomfortable for myriad reasons, but most entrepreneurs (men and women) agree that it is worth having.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing to talk about women in tech,” said Padnos, who commissioned a white paper to highlight female success in the tech field. She urged that women collaborate with men — many of whom are more than willing to discuss how to make entrepreneurship a viable option for anyone, regardless of race or gender.

“The women in tech conversation is getting airplay for good reason,” Richardson agreed, adding that the growing number of women in junior-level VC positions and starting tech companies will eventually make their way to the top. “In the meantime, let’s keep a steady drumbeat,” she said.

Let’s make entrepreneurship ‘sexy’

Padnos fears that not enough young women view entrepreneurship as a potential career path. “When I talk to friends of mine who have young daughters at college, many of them don’t see it as attractive,” she said. “Entrepreneurship is portrayed as a young man’s sport.”

Her solution? More women role models and investors that are willing to think outside the box “in terms of what an entrepreneur looks like and sounds like,” she said. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, IBM’s Ginni Rometty, and Xerox’s chief Ursula Burns are all good examples of inspiring role models for young women, and they often make public appearances at tech conferences and on television.

Women need to band together

Wadhwa has come to the conclusion that groups like Women 2.0 have led to women banding together to solve the problems they see in their midst. This prompted Women 2.0 founder Shaherose Charania to remark in a recent interview with USA Today that the tech ecosystem has “flattened.”

Organizations like Hackbright Academy are taking advantage of two trends: the “learn to code” craze, and the rapid emergence of these women in tech community groups. Hackbright’s classes are for women-only; students learn basic programming skills in 10 weeks (and typically land a job offer afterward).

Hackbright’s founders told VentureBeat that the mission is to spell the death of the “brogramming” culture that is locking women out of the industry.

Organizations like these are a quick fix to get more women in tech but aren’t tackling the underlying problem. As VentureBeat’s Jolie O’Dell put it: “If women developers are ever to be an unquestioned norm of the technology workforce, we have to keep plugging away at our earliest education of young girls — and even more importantly, at our own secret biases, fears, and expectations.”

Gender is a double-edged sword: The women I spoke with want it to be irrelevant, but on the other hand, they are still blazing trails in the second decade of the 21st century.

[Check out our compilation of tweets from female founders and developers in a story "Let's talk about women in tech" on Storify]

Typewriter image via Everett Collection // Shutterstock

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