Stop Equating Women In Tech With Engineers
There’s a lot to get mad about in Nina Burleigh’s Newsweek article about sexism in Silicon Valley. But what jumped out at me in a particularly face-palming moment was this little gem:
A prominent venture capital investor from one of California’s top firms, who asked not to be identified because he didn’t want his firm “singled out,” called the absence of female partners “embarrassing” but said it’s directly related to the smaller percentages of women graduating from the engineering schools. “There is no question that diversity of opinion adds to the acumen of the group,” he said. “One of the most passionate business reasons we have to expand the investment to include a handful of women is that they are often not represented in the partnership dynamic around the table on Monday when we are discussing investment ideas.”
No and no and no. And ARRRGH and punch a wall. It is a RED FUCKING HERRING to constantly blame Silicon Valley’s gender problem on a lack of female engineers. If Silicon Valley’s money people or fancy keynote founders or biz whizzes on the cover of Entrepreneur were all engineers crushing code 24/7, then fine. But that is not the case.
And yes there IS a compelling business reason to have women specifically, and diversity generally, around your boardroom table. (How many studies need to be published showing that diversity leads to better bottom-line results? Here’s one. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another. Here’s another.) So if you DON’T have diversity around your boardroom table then what is wrong with you? What kind of ace business person identifies a major factor to improve the bottom line and then just ignores it? No kidding this VC didn’t want to be singled out in this article — this quote makes him and his firm look like a bunch of hapless, backward tools. “Oh it’s so embarrassing, yes we need women but golly-gosh they’re so hard to find!” There is nothing take-charge or baller about sputtering excuses for why you have failed egregiously to innovate.
The conflation of STEM experience with ability to be “in tech” is something that seems to happen far more frequently (and reflexively) where women are concerned — yet it’s a standard that is not similarly imposed on the many, many male entrepreneurs and VCs who participate in the industry. For example, legendary angel investor Ron Conway is not an engineer — and no one would dare question his bona fides. Thrillist founder Ben Lerer, now a VC with Lerer Hippeau Ventures, has won oodles of entrpreneurial awards for building a juggernaut company, but his degree is in political science. Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of $25 million seed fund VaynerRSE, started out hustling wine. Even Mary Meeker — a freaking legend — originally graduated with a BA and an MBA. It would be patently ridiculous to dismiss any of them for a lack of an engineering background.
Then why do we keep seeing that standard held up as a prerequisite to joining VC? It doesn’t make sense. And maybe that’s just it. Follow this line of reasoning from Alisha Ramos, a front-end developer at Vox.com who has wrote her Harvard thesis on women in VC and continues to study the issue ongoingly. “I don’t understand how someone can attribute the lack of female VC partners to the lack of women graduating form engineering schools. Do VCs need to be engineers? Many are, but it’s not a requirement. Seems like placing a taller hurdle for women’s track to making partner.” Bingo.
It’s not a reason. It’s an excuse. And it’s bogus.
Let’s switch focus for a moment to, you know, all the OTHER areas of concern in Burleigh’s article. Let’s talk about fundraising.
VCs are not funding women. According to a study by Babson College, only 2.7 percent of the 6,517 companies that received venture funding from 2011 to 2013 had women CEOs.
(Other estimates say 4–9%. Let’s just assume that the ratio is dismal either way.)
The financing gap between male and female entrepreneurs is massive. VCs typically fund women at the lowest levels — $100,000.
Oh is this because all entrepreneurs are engineers? Hm, I think not. Is it because women just don’t have what it takes? Nope, not that either. I know this empirically thanks to Change The Ratio and TheLi.st — the network for professional women that I co-founded, which has served as an actual Binder of women building, pitching and bootstrapping innovative new companies. And man, do they have stories. Women are told they were too tough or not tough enough. (Incredible case in point: When The Muse founder Kathryn Minshew was fundraising out of Y Combinator she found that she was getting dinged both for being too tough and for being too nice. She surveyed her male counterparts on both; they had no clue what she was talking about.) Women with clear market opportunity are turned down again and again. (Hello Flo founder Naama Bloom could not find an investor who thought the menstruation market was viable; when I first met Bea Arthur, founder of online therapy startup Pretty Padded Room (now In Your Corner), she asked me, frustrated, how to get an investor to even take a meeting. She was making money, and she’d been on Shark Tank. Plus, she was the kind of entrepreneur all these investors were saying they were desperate to invest in — an African American woman. And yet.) One investor told Red Rover founder Kathryn Tucker that he didn’t invest in women. An investor once told me that he only invested in hot chicks.
I’ve been hearing these stories for years (especially the “I have to ask my wife” answer or often the more dismissive, “My wife wouldn’t use this” — as though the wife of an investor would be representative of the larger market). I have also, for years, been hearing investors say, “We really WANT to invest in women!” which may be true but is often different from “we really want to invest in women and we’ll use the exact same criteria applied to men and totally check our own gender biases in the process.”
“But wait! Tech is a meritocracy!” has come the rejoinder for years, implicitly throwing the onus back to women and minorities to somehow prove that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t get there on merit. But c’mon. “Pattern recognition” is a term of art (see: John Doerr, Paul Graham). Diversity numbers — especially at executive levels — are dismal. Studies show that investors prefer receiving pitches from men. As MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop tweeted in response to the Newsweek article the other day: “VCs cut male founders slack, fund uncertain outcomes. Women asked to prove every detail, then not funded anyway.” That sounds an awful lot like data cited in Lean In: men are promoted based on potential, women are promoted based on accomplishments.
None of which is to suggest that Mark Zuckerberg is wanting in merit — it just suggests that maybe the meritocracy seen, acknowledged and promoted by Silicon Valley looks a certain way.
(Now is the time where I feel the need to say: White dudes are great! They build great products! They invest in great companies! They are great innovators! I bear no ill-will to the white dudes who have paved the way for articles such as this! I just need to point out that white dudes have benefited from an awful lot of grassroots affirmative action in getting there.)
And also — not all women! Not all men! There are lots of fantastic women entrepreneurs getting funded — really funded — and their numbers are going up. Katia Beauchamp & Hayley Barna at Birchbox have raised $71.9 million. Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos has raised $45 million. Leah Busque at TaskRabbit has raised $37.7 million. Amy Jain & Daniella Yacobovsky at Bauble Bar have raised $15.6 million. Jessica Richman at uBiome raised $5 million. Women with male cofounders are also in there raising, like Michelle Zatlyn at Cloudflare with $72.1 million and Christina Mercando at Ringly with $5.1 million.
In 2014, 10% of Series A rounds were raised by women. Also, more and more women are prominently planting their flags in the investment game, like Susan Lyne and Nisha Dua at BBG Ventures and Anu Duggal and Beth Ferreira at F Cubed and Aileen Lee at Cowboy Ventures and Jennifer Fonstad and Theresia Gouw at Aspect Ventures and Jalak Jobanputra at Future Perfect Ventures and Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures and Kay Koplovitz, Amy Wildstein and Whitney Johnson at Springboard Fund as well as women like Sarah Kunst at Fortis Partners and Caitlin Strandberg of Flybridge and Anna Khan of Bessemer who both went to HBS to get even better at what they do plus let’s acknowledge gender-diverse VC shops like Floodgate Partners with Mike Maples Jr. Ann Muira-Ko and Iris Choi as well as a budding new wave of angel investors and eight, eight, I forget what eight was for but the point is, it’s not just a boy’s club and not by a long shot.
It’s actually a weird, semi-unfair time to be a white male investor in Silicon Valley because the onus I referred to above has finally shifted back. When an article like the one in Newsweek comes out, it points a damning finger at the entire industry and re-imagines everyone on the Midas List as at best cluelessly complacent about their own bias and at worst the sexist, leering douche angling for an upskirt peek on the Newsweek cover.
All of that said — the numbers do not lie. The problem is real. Just because there are amazing women in VC doesn’t mean that the industry overall is getting better — according to Dan Primack’s Termsheet, the needle has barely moved. Those improved investment numbers above show women clocking in with 10% of funding, which may be an “improvement” but is not by any stretch “good.” They leave 90% of the pie for dudes, which is a horrendous ratio. For everyone, because it leaves money on the table. For everyone.
So let’s stop pretending that this is a pipeline problem. It isn’t. There are a ton of qualified women out there, women who can measure up to any similarly-situated man — as long as they’re being judged by the same criteria. Engineers are great, STEM is great, we’re talking about the tech industry, duh. (And support for next-gen orgs like Girls Who Code and Yes We Code and Code 2040 and Black Girls Code is fantastic but does not address the very real problems with this gen.) In the Venn diagram of all the players in the tech industry — which by that way is itself a giant circle overlapping pretty much every other industry at this point — engineers make up just one part. So to say that the reason women are scarce at the highest levels of boardrooms and term sheets is because they’re just not graduating from engineering programs fast enough is false. And dumb.
The problem is not with the pipeline, it’s with the industry that the pipeline is piping into. The tech industry needs to stop pretending everything’s cool and start acknowledging that the system is broken. That’s not too hard, is it? Be smart, face facts, do better. It’s the least we can expect from a meritocracy.
Rachel Sklar is the founder of Change The Ratio. She’d love to become obsolete.
Top illustration via xkcd.