Fast Company

Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Playing the Blame Game

Women in TechWe have a rampant problem in the tech world. It's called the blame game. Here's how it works. You ask the question, "Why aren't there enough women in tech or launching startups?" From some you get answers like, "Because it's an exclusive white boys club." But others say, "Not true! It's because women don't promote their expertise enough and they are more risk averse." How can we truly address the lack of women in tech and startups and develop realistic solutions if we continue to play this silly blame game?

Yesterday, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch wrote a blog post saying, "It doesn't matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich."

That's a nice idea and if it were true then the amount of wealthy entrepreneurs would better match our population's racial and gender demographics. The fact remains that in 2009 angel investors dished out $17.6 billion to fund startups. Wonder how many funded startups were women-run? 9.4%, according to the 2009 angel investor report from Center for Venture Research at University of New Hampshire. And only 6% of investor money funded startups run by people of color.

Yet Arrington says it's because women just don't want it enough and that he is sick and tired of being blamed for it. He also says TechCrunch has "beg[ged] women to come and speak" and participate in their events and reached out to communities but many women still decline.

Since launching the Women Who Tech TeleSummit three years ago (which is coming up on September 15th featuring an all-star lineup of over 30 women in tech and social media like Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare, Kaliya Hamlin of Shes Geeky, Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sistas and who recently wrote about her experiences after being recognized by AlwaysOn, Mary Hodder who is working on her second startup, Irene Au of Google, Amy Jo Kim of ShuffleBrain, Heather Harde of Tech Crunch, and Lynne d. Johnson, formerly of Fast Company and now with the Advertising Research Foundation) I have heard the uproar from both sides and have written about it extensively. Want to know my secret for organizing thought-provoking, women-led panels discussing topics such as launching your own startup or women and open source and identity?

  • I'm actively involved in several communities and not just when I have open call for entries.
  • I have expanded my network and spend time listening as well as engaging and building relationships with diverse people.
  • I believe we squash innovation when we don't have diverse tech teams and I practice what I preach.
  • I'm a fighter. I advocate for what I believe in and don't easily give up when I don't succeed or meet a goal.

And that is exactly what people like Arrington and others who are in a position of power need to do too. The tech world has some of the most creative, tenacious and resourceful people who have profited from these very qualities. Giving up is not part of their nature when they really care about achieving a goal that is important to them. Instead of the playing the blame game, lets develop an action plan together to get more women launching startups and involved in tech.

Here's a Start:

  1. Build Meaningful Relationships with Organizations: Don't just approach women in tech organizations when you need suggestions. If you truly want to reach their memberships, you need to carve out time to get involved with the organization, attend their conferences and cultivate relationships. Here are few good organizations to connect with. Anita Borg Institute, She's Geeky, Women Who Tech, The National Center for Women and IT, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women 2.0, Women In Technology International, Girls In Tech and BlogHer who have featured over 500 women speakers at their conferences over the past few years.
  2. Break Out of your Comfort Zone: "If you spend time in a homogeneous social network like Silicon Valley's VC community, then you will only get white, male ventured back candidates," said Geoff Livingston who has organized several conferences such as Blog Potomac. "It's your job to go beyond the comfort zone. Victimization maybe an easy out, but it won't stop the criticism of your inability to break out of limited social circles."
  3. It's a Numbers Game: Ask for Several Suggestions: If you're a conference organizer and someone declines a speaking invitation, ask for 3-4 suggestions of other women who would be a good fit. Likewise, if you're invited to speak at a conference, but aren't able to participate, recommend 3-4 good women speakers.
  4. Share the Spotlight: Diversify those top 10 lists. "Reach deeper and rotate fresh names through," said Cathy Brooks who hosts the Social Media Hour.
  5. Diversify Your Rolodex: Be proactive and follow and engage with more women in tech. There are several women in tech lists on Twitter, Fanpages, and LinkedIn groups.
  6. Start Organizing: Organize a series of Reverse-Pitch Parties for women entrepreneurs at SXSW and in different cities.

Have more ideas to add to the list? Comment below.

Allyson Kapin is the Founder of the Web firm Rad Campaign, Women Who Tech, and the Blogger-in-Chief for Care2's Frogloop blog. You can follow her on Twitter at @WomenWhoTech.

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30 Comments

  • Pemo Theodore

    Great discussion. I recently interviewed on women entrepreneurs shortfall with venture funding with Cindy Gallop,IfWeRanTheWorld, who says it as she sees it & responded to some points from your FasterTimes interview with her, Allyson. She certainly is ahead of her time! You can check out her comments http://www.ezebis.com/venture/...

  • YLi

    If you want to know how predisposition can affect the outcome, please read this article and you will understand what we are discussing here:

    "Princeton Economist Finds that Auditioning Behind Screens Helps Women Win Orchestra Positions"

    http://www.princeton.edu/pr/ne...

    Quoted directly from the article:
    "The switch to blind auditions can explain between 30 percent and 55 percent of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and between 25 percent and 46 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras from 1970 to 1996," the economists write. The study notes that the surge of women in symphony orchestras has occurred despite the fact that the number of positions is highly fixed and turnover is slow.

  • K.O.

    It all comes down to capital, connections, and confidence.

    1. Most Women Don't Build Venture Fundable Businesses
    Women's access to venture capital is limited by their lack of proliferation in technology-driven, capital intensive companies. 64% of all women-led businesses are in the services, retail, and finance business sector. 70% of all VC funds go to firms in 5 business sectors (Biotech, Software, Telecom, Medical Devices, and Networking).

    2. Women Don't Finance For The Company They Want to Become
    A 2004 NAWBO study showed that, even among the fastest growing small businesses in America, women owners are far less likely than their male counterparts to take on corporate credit lines or cede equity ownership to outside investors. Almost 41% of women business owners said they do not have credit services with any bank or financial institution. One out of three attribute their lack of credit to being a start up business. The other top reasons women business owners do not pursue financing are a belief that they would not qualify for credit (26%) and the perception that the credit process is too difficult or cumbersome (20%). If you don't finance for the company you want to become, you limit growth.

    3. Women Don't Ask for Angel Funding
    The 2005 Angel Market Report suggested that women-owned ventures accounted for 8.7 percent of the entrepreneurs seeking angel capital in 2005 (up from ~5% in 2004) and 33 percent of these women entrepreneurs received angel investments. The good news here? While the number of women seeking angel capital is low, the percentage that secure angel investments is higher than the overall market yield rate.

    Disagree? Think the gender gap is due to women's lack of aptitude for or interest in science and engineering? Think again. Since 1966, the number of women receiving bachelor's degrees in science and engineering in the U.S. has increased almost every year, reaching approximately half of the total in 2001. The number and the proportion of doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded to women have increased steadily since 1966, from 8% in 1966 to 37% in 2001. And according to the NSF, women with science or engineering degrees were predominantly employed in the education sector, with substantially fewer employed in business or industry than men.

    Kirsten Osolind
    President
    RE:INVENTION, inc.
    www.reinventioninc.com

  • Kat Gordon

    Hats off to Allyson for pointing out the futility of the blame game and giving women their marching orders for changing things. My industry suffers even worse gender imbalance than Tech. Only 3% of advertising creative directors are female, yet women control 80% of consumer spending. First I got mad. Then mystified. Then motivated. Next Fall, I'm launching The 3% Conference (@3percentconf) to do precisely what Allyson recommends: create change instead of waiting for it. Thanks for a timely, important, well-written piece.

  • Chris Reich

    Okay, let's look at the numbers. Only 9.4% of $17.6 billion of startup capital went to women run ventures. Granted, that is low and may point to a problem.

    But those numbers do not tell us what the problem is. Discrimination? We can't draw that conclusion from the data, at least not this data. That's like saying batter Sally only hit 5 home runs against a male average of 25 home runs. How many times did Sally get to bat? We need to know what proportion of applications were from women run start ups. We need to know the dollars sought by women run startups. Maybe women are better planners and seek less startup capital per venture. Maybe women are launching ventures without startup capital? (I know they are because I know some doing so!)

    We do not know the rejection rate. Perhaps 80% of women run startups got funding. Again, if the dollars per startup are low, the percentage of dollars figure is misleading.

    So then we get a list of how to correct a problem we do not fully understand. Maybe, just maybe, women have established a better way that isn't appearing on traditional radar? They have done that throughout the third world by forming cooperative ventures to feed their families. While the men 'wait' for a traditional job.

    I think women are probably doing more than men are measuring...as always.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Marcia MacInnis

    Good ideas, but nothing beats a great pair of legs.

    By that, I mean that to be successful in any male-dominated field, a woman has to be conventionally pretty. This is true if you can find women mentors. Women in tech will bolt from a sister who is not good-looking even faster than men.

    If you doubt this to be true, check out the photos of the women posting to this blog. Most could easily be models or in sales (if they aren't already). My point is that the requirement of conventional prettiness further narrows the field of women who can realistically expect to get venture funding, mentors, business opportunities, the highest grades in school, etc.

  • geofflivingston

    Marcia:

    I think that's one of the most assanine things I have read. I work with successful women all the time, and not because they "give me a rise." They are brilliant and know what they are doing. Many are beyond modeling age and are well beyond trading on youthful attributes. No, they win because they've got the brains.

  • Krista Neher

    Hi Allyson

    Great article! I've been following parts of this discussion on TechCrunch and Facebook.

    I have been the only woman speaker at a few conferences, and have often asked the organizers about the lack of diversity on their speaker panel.

    Typically the response is that they do a call for speakers, reach out to their friends and select the best people to speak. This seems like a pretty open process with no discrimination. In some cases this results in primarily male speakers.

    I think that part of the issue is that we do business with people we know, like and trust - people who are like us. So, if we publicize our call to speakers within our social circles and ask people we know to speak, we are most likely to get speakers who are like us. Even when it comes to speaker submissions, organizers are most likely to select people that they know or have a relationship with over people they don't.

    Many of the conference organizers that I speak with would like to see more diversity, but they aren't getting the applications and they don't have time/capacity effort to go out of their way to find it when there are plenty of good, qualified speakers who have submitted to speak.

    Here is the question: Should conference organizers go out of their way to recruit diversity speakers when they already have great speakers pro-actively applying to speak? I think that any discussion (at a conference or in a bar) is more interesting when there are different view points, and this is one of the major reasons that diversity (in thought, gender, etc) is important.

    I would love to see some information on the results of speaker submissions for conferences and how those match up with the outcomes. Is there disparity between the applications percentages and the speakers percentages? Any conference organizers out there care to comment?

    - Krista

  • Jon Pincus

    Great points Krista (and great article Allyson). I co-chaired the 20th ACM Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) earlier this year, and we decided to make diversity an explicit goal. So I spent a chunk of time looking at what other conferences are doing. My impression is that it's exactly as you say: even when people want diversity, they're not investing the effort to make it happen. As I said in my response to Arrington, fretting, asking, and begging isn't a plan: http://www.talesfromthe.net/jo...

    As a result, for many conferences the vast majority the applications are from men. Here's an analysis I did last summer I of the Government 2.0 Expo, which had 78% of their apps from women: http://www.talesfromthe.net/jo...

    Totally agreed about the value of the different perspectives. I was at a privacy conference in 2009 which had panels like "Five middle-aged white guys on the future of privacy" and "Four middle-aged white guys on airport profiling". Sigh.

    No question that it can be challenging to get a diverse set of speakers but it's certainly worth doing.

    jon

  • Yalanda at DryerBuzz

    With all his trophies, he is yet the victor. The most brilliant of minds is not yet in the ring. For the best in competition he awaits. :-)

  • Benjamin Riggs

    One major issue that has been completely ignored is a pervasive culture of misogyny within the tech world. It's something so pervasive that few even recognize the symptoms. I see them almost everywhere, even here. I'm sure I even unwittingly partake in this culture at times without realizing it.

    Our cultural view of women has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last century, but women are still marginalized. Thankfully, they're no longer dismissed outright, or assumed to be incapable of more than secretarial work. Women are, however, still thought of by most as secondary to men. The generic male silhouette avatar given to posters of comments on this very site is an unfortunate manifestation of this. Another example from this very site is in the opening sentence of the article about the Arcade Fire's new website in which the author states, "it's everything a geek could want (short of a girlfriend)."

    I don't think either of these examples are intentional efforts to marginalize and objectify women; such a thing, thankfully, would not be tolerated on a popular website wanting to thrive in today's world. Nonetheless, these are but two examples of a much larger and insidious problem still preventing women, individually and in general, from archiving the success of which they are capable.

  • BJ Wishinsky

    Great post, Allyson! Thanks for mentioning the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI).

    Sheena asked where the statistics are on venture funding for women-run start-ups. One study showed that VC "firms with women investment partners are 70 percent more likely to lead an investment in a woman entrepreneur than those with only male partners." See http://www.illuminate.com/whit... for the full report. There are also three recent reports on women and entrepreneurship lists on our research page at http://anitaborg.org/news/rese...

  • Lynne d Johnson

    While reading the recent article on TechCrunch, "Silicon Valley's Dark Secret: It's All About Age," http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/..., I started thinking about the preferences for males in these roles because it's often thought that women will either get married or have kids, so they're more of a risk. And for me this ties into this topic nicely.

    Sure racism, classism, sexism, et al exists in business, tech, wherever--but even that those "isms" can be used as a blame game. I'm not saying Allyson's 6 ponts provide the perfect answers to save women in tech or blacks in tech, but as a black woman who has worked in the media/tech field for a number of years I can say that it's a start.

    Does the racist/sexist VC want to hear my business venture idea? Probably not. But there are ones who will. There are ones who just want to hear good ideas, and some of what's listed here is a good start for them on finding "women" to connect with. (As for finding people of color, that's an entirely different post.)

    Does it solve the overall problem? WIll it close the gender gap? Will it close the racial gap? Scientifically, probably not. But again, it's a start.

    Personally, I've never let being a woman or being black stop me from becoming a media/tech executive, but I know many people bound by social stratification--and that's where I see its my job to reach back out and to connect with other women and other people of color in tech -- to introduce them to one another and to introduce them to power players or people who can help them get to power players. (Sure there's an educational and social component to all of this too.)

    But again, if we don't start somewhere, with whatever we can do, with whatever set of tools we have or with whatever we can create, then we'll continue to stand still.

    So Allyson I applaud your article and the efforts you have made to get women highlighted at male-dominated conferences and in male-dominated tech conversations. I don't think you alone or womenintech or womenwhotech can do it all though.

  • Allyson Kapin

    Thanks Lynne! You are an incredible role model.

    Exactly, my suggestions are just a start which I hope will foster more discussion and that others will continue to add to the list of ideas. The tech world will never be perfect (nor will any other sector) and I agree that if we don't start taking some collective action then nothing will ever change.

  • Shannon Renee

    Reaching for any goal or breaking through any barrier takes a high level of commitment, persistence and tenacity. Be it going for VC funding, a speaking engagement or anything of value, we have to work it and work it hard. Many people, men, women, Black, white, Latin, Asian, etc., aren't able, don't know how or give up before their dreams become reality.

    Yes, women have been raised this way and acculturated that way, it is time to move past our pasts and get on with making it happen for ourselves. Just like I tell my single girlfriends, if you want a husband, you have to get out there and fight for one. The same principle applies in the business, if you want to recognized then you have do do something worthy of recognition and let people know about it. A man isn't going to how magnificent you are if you don't let him know and a VC isn't going to know how wondrous your idea is if you let them know.

    If we don't succeed, we only have ourselves to blame. I decided this year I wanted to speak more, so I began putting in proposals. If I didn't apply, I would never get asked. Of the four I actively pursued, I've been accepted to one. Gotta start somewhere.

  • DonDodge

    Shannon, Great approach. It starts with one speaking engagement. Then other people see you speak and invite you to speak at another conference. It snowballs from there to lots of invitations to speak or be on panels.

    Another commenter mentioned that conference organizers select people they know and trust. This is largely true because they can't risk putting someone up there to speak that they don't know. They can't risk a bad session. The attendees will not come back.

    The other issue is that the big conferences already have twice as many speaker requests than they can handle. How can they turn down an industry super star for a slot and instead put up someone they don't know?

    Believe me, every conference wants to have women speakers and cultural diversity. It is hard to find people who have been successful speaking at other events.

    It starts with being a great panelist, and graduating up to a speaker role. It helps to write a blog and Tweet a lot, and comment on other blogs to build your reputation. Networking with other speakers, PR agencies, and "connectors" will help accelerate the process.

    Don Dodge