The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.
Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.” A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.
Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business). Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.) The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.
Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).
For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial. As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.
I’m extremely impressed with Vivek Wadhwa’s posts on TechCrunch. He’s been blogging periodically for them since last fall and has shown that he’s willing to take on difficult, controversial, and complicated issues and discuss them in data driven and systematic ways.
Recently, Vivek wrote a post titled Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem that resulted from a research project he did with the National Center for Women & Information Technology (I’m chairman). I thought the post was excellent. The comments, however, were really enlightening to me. The amount of anger and hostility, especially irrational attacks, surprised me. Well – I guess it only surprised me a little – it mostly disappointed me.
After that article, Vivek sent me an email with the following questions “why did you originally get involved with NCWIT” and “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?”. The first one was easy – I pointed him at a post I wrote in September 2005 titled Why the NCWIT Board Chair is a Man. I then spent some time thinking and emailing with Lucy Sanders *the CEO of NCWIT), about what we have learned to address the question of “how would you fix the problem of the dearth of women entrepreneurs?” My goal was to boil my answer down into a very simple set of suggestions, as NCWIT has several programs in their Entrepreneurial Alliance that address this problem. In my experience, a simple answer is much better than a complex one, especially for people who haven’t yet thought hard about the problem but are interested in it.
I came up with two specific things that I’ve learned over the past five years and have incorporated into my brain:
1. We simply need more technical women in the software industry. If there were more, there would be more starting software and Internet companies.
2. Existing entrepreneurs and VCs can help a lot by encouraging women to become entrepreneurs and then supporting them when they take the plunge. It turns out that the simple act of encouragement (from parents, teachers, peers) is hugely impactful across the entire education and entrepreneurial pipeline so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is also important in the startup phase.
At some level it’s that simple. The implementation and execution of these two (related) concepts is really difficult. So, when I read Vivek’s post this morning titled A Fix for Discrimination: Follow the Indian Trails I realized he had once again totally nailed it. The example of how Indian entrepreneurs, first as individuals, and then through TiE, became a force in entrepreneurship through the US and the world, is a great one. And it’s an excellent analogy for women (and other groups that feel discrimination in the entrepreneur ecosystem.)
Once again, the early comments were disappointing in their anger and hostility. However, given some of the stuff I’ve heard over the past five years through my involvement in NCWIT, they weren’t a surprise to me this time.