Is equity in the tech sector on the horizon?
News out of the technology sector leaves many women feeling discouraged. The media would have us believe that females are widely discriminated against, that tech start-ups resemble old boys’ clubs, and that women don’t have much of a chance when it comes to raising capital.
These reports paint the gender gap in tech with broad strokes and do not tell the whole story. Earlier this year, CrunchBase, a database for tech start-ups, revealed that an increasing number of women are launching companies—18 percent of tech start-ups had at least one female founder in 2014, compared with 9.5 percent in 2009.
On the flip side, some statistics claim that only 6 percent of venture capital partners are female, which many argue decreases the likelihood that women entrepreneurs will have successful fund-raising rounds.
At Diversity Woman, we decided to investigate further. Here are stories from five female tech founders on the state of the industry for women.
“It is dangerous to call this a tech problem.”
Ruzwana Bashir spent time working in investment banking and private equity before moving to San Francisco in 2011 to launch Peek, a company that offers unique travel experiences.
As for the gender gap in tech, Bashir says the industry gets a bad rap. The finance world is far worse to women. “It is dangerous to call it a tech problem,” she says. “This is a society problem.” While she doesn’t discount the challenges women face in the industry, she sees hope with more female founders starting companies every year. Meritocracy, she says, is more common in tech than in finance.
The challenges Bashir has experienced as a woman revolve around a lack of mentors. “I never had one,” she says. “There are a lot of successful women in all areas of business. We should be telling their stories so the rest of us don’t feel so alone. I think when you see images of what it looks like to be someone working in tech and they look different from you, you sometimes think you can’t do it.”
Today Bashir speaks with other female founders about jumping in with both feet. “In tech, you have the opportunity to create value and create anew,” she says. “You don’t have to live by established cultures. I wouldn’t want young women to be turned off by the impressions they are getting about the tech world today. Of all the industries out there, tech is the one that can change and move and become more accommodating to women.”
Drive down most major interstates around San Francisco, and you will spot billboards for Dice.com, a platform for tech jobs, with not-so-in-shape 20-something men in boxers posing seductively under a tagline that reads, “Find the hottest tech talent.”
This image, Fran Maier argues, is a big part of the problem. In March, Maier, the founder of Match.com and TRUSTe, wrote a piece on Medium that addressed why images are so important to who decides to start tech companies. “I heard that the number of girls going into computer science fields went down around 1980, during the PC boom,” she says. “That was when most computer ads showed dads with their sons. The images we were sending to young women were that they were not welcome, that they were not part of this club. Images matter.”
Today, gender discrimination in tech is, she says, in the margins. “Maybe there is a team thinking about hiring someone and the job goes to a person the guys know already,” she explans. “I see men get those opportunities more than women.”
Even so, the tech sector is friendlier than ever to women, Maier attests. This is in part thanks to the Lean In movement, started by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book of the same name, and the recent gender discrimination lawsuit filed by Ellen Pao, a former associate at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of the largest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.
“These high-profile examples allow us to talk out loud about this,” she says. “In companies, we can say, ‘This isn’t right, we need to expand our recruiting pool,’ and that is a good thing.”
“I see micro-aggressions.”
Early this year, Andrea Barrica, cofounder of inDinero and entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Startups, was attending a tech conference when a male worker walked on stage and made a joke about data centers.
“He said, ‘Data centers are like women, not only powerful, but really expensive,’” she says. “This got a huge laugh from the crowd.”
These types of comments, what Barrica calls micro-aggressions, hurt women in tech. “You can’t call it out right then and there—but it makes the environment not great,” she says.
What would help turn the tide? “A female archetype,” she says, adding that if more powerful women spoke out on the issue, things might change more quickly. This is happening, albeit slowly. As more women rise to become partners in venture capital firms, things will change.
In two years Barrica hopes to see women leading more tech companies. “At conferences, I hope to see a third, if not half, of workshops led by women.”
“This generation is open-minded.”
Mariam Naficy started in the tech space back in the 1990s when she founded Eve.com, an e-commerce cosmetics company. She sold the company just before the dot-com bust and says today’s young tech workers, part of the Millennial generation, are more open-minded than when she was raising money nearly 20 years ago.
“I remember receiving some commentary on my physical appearance,” she says. “I remember getting a lot of comments about how no one was going to shop online, which now I think is priceless.”
When raising money for Minted 10 years later, Naficy met with a new generation of venture capitalists.
“There is so much negative talk about this situation, but the positive part is that many of the people starting businesses now are not the same people who were starting businesses the last time around,” she says. “They are a generation younger. The people in positions of influence are also younger. I find this generation to be quite open-minded when it comes to women in tech, which has really helped me in my business.”
“The positives outweigh the negatives.”
Caitlin MacGregor, cofounder and CEO of Plum, a job search platform based in Waterloo, Ontario, says her start-up community isn’t an old boys’ club, but there is a certain level of fitting into a mold that helps start-up entrepreneurs.
“There is a Mark Zuckerberg pattern-matching effect,” she says. “If you look and act like Mark, you are a reflection of the tech sector and there is a willingness for investors to take a chance on you.”
Despite her lack of resemblance to Facebook’s founder, MacGregor has managed to get funding for her company by being herself. The challenges of being a women in tech, she says, revolve around lack of exposure early on.
“The sharing of information and the normalization of start-up life aren’t spreading within female networks as much as within male networks,” she says. “It is not intentional exclusion.”
What is helping this situation is the creation of organizations like Women’s Startup Lab that provide a community for female tech founders. Visionaries like Sandberg help, too, by providing role models that are outside of the Zuckerberg archetype.
“When [Yahoo! CEO] Marissa Mayer brought her baby into the office, it sent a message that I can do it, too. I started bringing my kid in at six months old. It helps to see what your peer group looks like,” she says, adding that she also benefited from participating in Springboard Enterprises, an all-female tech accelerator. “I think the positives of being a woman in tech outweigh the negatives. There are a lot of opportunities out there for women.” DW
Katie Morell is a San Francisco–based journalist who specializes in business, travel, and human-interest topics. Read more of her work at katiemorell.com.