Why is diversity great for Tech?

Recently I went to the Zurich Geek Girls Dinner. This is an international event born in London and now, due to popular demand, its founder Sara Lamb, lets people replicate the event in other cities just by following a formula. These dinners are free and have the purpose of identifying ways to bring down any entry barrier for anyone trying to get into technology (see full Mission here).

The event was structured so that we could first hear a Q&A panel with women in executive roles in the Tech Industry and, afterward, all the attendees could have dinner together (and some drinks) so we could network. I personally liked more the networking session than the panel. Why? I think the panel got a bit stuck in the same old place where discussions about gender gap dangerously fall: inequality & positive discrimination. I mean, it is not news that women are underrepresented in Tech (and in many other technical industries). We have heard, read and talked about it a thousand times, and still men surpass women by numbers by far. Maybe we should approach the topic from another perspective now. Instead of arguing that more women should be in Tech because a matter of rights or fairness (life is not fair), we should talk about how having women (and any other group) in Tech is good for everyone.

Why is diversity good for Tech?

There are many industries that are male dominated (Tech, Military, Government, Construction, etc.), however, the Tech industry is the one that could benefit the most from diversity. The tech industry is in charge of the technical innovation that, when succeeds, it provides new solutions to everyone’s life (men, women, Hispanics, White people, Color people, Asian people, etc.,…EVERYONE). However, each of the groups I mentioned tends to have different consumer needs, so if the Tech industry is almost 90% formed by men, it is not rocket science to deduce that those men will think about innovation in a social-cultural-male scope. Therefore, having more women (or other unrepresented groups) on both sides of the table (entrepreneurs and investors) opens the possibility to untapped business opportunities that men have not spotted yet. Alexandra Wilkis Wilson (Gilt founder) recently told her experience when she was raising funds: she said that one investor told her that women just don’t spend $500 on shoes until he spoke with his wife (“This is why female founders are getting nowhere with funding”). You get the point, women have different consumer needs which male entrepreneurs and investors might not acknowledge. The same happens with other unrepresented groups such as Hispanics, Black people, etc:

I believe that as Upfront Ventures, some other VC investors have slowly started to realize the need of investing in startups that serve women needs and that probably have women leading them. If we look at some data recently released by Techcrunch, we can observe that female founders backed by VC are in an uptrend since 2009. In 2009 only 9.5% of companies backed by VC were created by female founders. In 2014 VC financed almost 18% startups created by women. This is an almost 100% increase in percentage points.

Source: Techcrunch

On the other side of the table (the VC side), the numbers are not so encouraging. Techcrunch also released the numbers of women (in executive positions) in VCs, and showed that only 7% of partners at top US 100 venture firms are women and that only 38% of those top VC have women partners. Meaning that 62% of the top 100 VC in the US have not a single women partner. That is shocking!

Outside the top 100 VCs, women presence in all VC listed in Crunchbase follows the same pattern: from 2,300 VC listed only 8% have female partners. In accelerators and Corporate VCs the numbers are better, having 12% of women partners. We need to understand that to get more diversity in Tech, investing in founders other than men is not a complete solution; diversity should permeate also investors side. If VC have more women in their teams, these women could help diversify investments in startups that serve women needs. Moreover, these women could become role models for future geek girls or girl VCers.

Overall, things are changing at least in the US ecosystem (we need data from other hubs!!) and, if we keep going on this trend, in some years we will probably see more innovation happening in women lives. I can’t wait to see the birth of more and more startups such as Nurx (Uber for birth control), Priv & Glamsquad (on demand for beauty services), Ipsy (Beauty Box), and more women closing great VC investments (that no one else thought of).

Besides opening new frontiers of innovation, there are other reasons why having more women is great for Tech. Several studies have shown that women presence in leadership positions contributes positively to better business performance (Deloitte); from creating more engagement among team members (Gallup) to generating better financial performance (Catalyst), having more women in teams and boards is better for business.

I know, you are now probably thinking: Let’s get some women on board!! I like your enthusiasm but it is not so easy because the reasons behind not many women working in Tech are self-fulfilling. Let me explain further…

Why are women unrepresented in the Tech ecosystem?

We are used to think (in the wrong scope for discussion) that if a certain group has a small presence in any environment (industry, company, social group, etc), is because a lack of opportunities for this specific group. Is this true? I recently ran into an intense talk with a friend about the few women in tech, and he raised the question of whether this phenomenon could be a consequence of women’s choice and not of a lack of opportunities. Basically, that some women decide actively to go for other paths rather than technical careers. Even though I did not like this idea, this could be a possibility.

a) Women do not choose tech careers (?)
 In 2012 a collaborator of Forbes put together a really interesting article about the real reason why there were not too many women in tech: “We’ve done lots of research on why young women don’t choose tech careers and number one is they think it’s not interesting. Number two, they think they wouldn’t be good at it. Number three, they think they will be working with a number of people that they just wouldn’t feel comfortable or happy working alongside.”

Fortunately, reason one appears to be disappearing as according to Crunchbase data, women make up 60% of the college graduates in the US, and one-third of the engineering graduates in top schools such as Stanford (The next new thing: Women VCs). I would say that now women are more and more interested in making a career in Tech. Reasons two and three are still a matter of women’s own decision, however, they are indirectly influenced by a perception of the reality that might be or not true, so I will discuss them in the following section.

b) Women think they do not fit in Tech environments
More than a lack of capabilities or opportunities, women do not choose technical careers because they feel that they won’t fit in Tech environments. According to a Harvard Business Review study, 50 percent of women with careers in STEM fields will eventually leave around their mid or late thirties because five main reasons: 1) hostility in the work place; 2) professional isolation that comes “when a woman is the only female on her team or at her rank”; 3) a disparity between women’s preferred work rhythms and that of male-dominated fields where the risky “diving catch” and “firefighting” behaviours are valued; 4) extreme working hours and; lacking sponsors to help them “discern the pathway that will allow them to make a steady progress upward”. Hence, girls that think they won’t fit in Tech, in fact they won’t fit. The exodus of their older peers from Tech jobs proves it. Therefore, here is where the phenomenon of few women in Tech becomes a self-fulfilling challenge: women choose not to start a career in tech because there are yet not enough women to: 1) push for more women-friendy environments; 2) be the peer/friend/role model for new entrants.

We want more women (and more Hispanic, Asian, African, etc.) in Tech. Diversity is great for the whole ecosystem. If we want that both more women get into Tech and women don’t leave their Tech jobs, all players in Tech (founders, investors and Tech companies) need to enforce (at least at the beginning) employee policies that encourage more women-friendly-environments. At the same time, women that are already in the Tech ecosystem (including myself) must not only fight for having these women-friendly environments but also do lots of mentoring and share their stories (and other women stories). Girl students, coders or any girl interested in Tech must know there is a place for us in Tech.

Note: As a woman working in VC I want to help spread the word of what great women are doing in Tech (building new tech, startups or closing great deals). Therefore, in this section of my blog you will always read about awesome things that women are doing (Women in Tech).

Originally published at VC Hype.

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