There is a dearth of women executives in startups, as a couple of blog posts and articles published in late 2010 point out. In The Men and No Women of Web 2.0 Boards (Boomtown’s Talking to You: Twitter, Facebook, Zynga, Groupon and FourSquare), Kara Swisher decries the lack of women on the board of directors of today’s leading Web 2.0 companies. Writes Swisher:
“There is no question it is tough to make sure there is a good balance of qualified women leaders to men in tech–it is an issue we wrestle with every single year…But it can be done, especially at public tech companies. Google has two women on its board of nine directors; Yahoo has three of 10; even Oracle has two of a dozen. But a grand total of zero at the leading companies of Web 2.0 is not just a coincidence. It’s a shame.”
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry comments on Zwisher’s article in Outrageous: No Women at the Top of Web 2.0 Companies:
“We have to agree with Kara that this is pretty outrageous, and embarrassing for the concerned companies. She correctly points out that this is largely due to the fact that VC very much remains a boys’ club, and VCs are the ones who get the earliest and most board seats. But many of those companies are gearing up to go public or could go public, and so have added outside board members. And none of those were women.”
So, why is there a lack of women in C-level and board director positions in tech startups? Why should we be concerned? And what can we do to stop this alarming trend?
In The Decade of the Women Entrepreneur, Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation VP Lesa Mitchell interviews Astia CEO Sharon Vosmek and Women 2.0 CEO Shaherose Charania. The article quotes Vosmek:
“Women are particularly underrepresented in the high-growth space. What makes high-growth entrepreneurship different? Why are women not finding their way there? I believe there are two reasons, as shown by research. Number one, data out of the University of Wisconsin show that women self-assess differently than men do. This fact matters, particularly in the high-growth space, because we see women with fifteen years of industry experience fearful they’re not qualified to start a company. That phenomenon really becomes a pain point for high-growth entrepreneurship, where women would be stepping out onto a limb to launch companies. Second, Kauffman Foundation research shows that women use their networks differently than men do.
“Not many women have been raised with exposure to the idea of entrepreneurship (even more specifically in technology). At no point from elementary school to college was I exposed to the option of being a founder (in tech). Furthermore, entrepreneurial role models were non-existent. When I was growing up, for example, I was aware of Bill Gates, but couldn’t relate to the level of entrepreneurship he represented.”
To sum up the above, the lack of women in high-tech startups can be attributed to the basic differences between how men and women assess themselves and use their networks, and women’s relative lack of exposure to high-tech entrepreneurship. The lack of women role models doesn’t help either.
Why should we care if there’s a lack of women entrepreneurs in the high-tech space? Firstly, because women make up a majority of the audience or markets of high-tech companies. Secondly, because variety is needed if we are to continuously innovate.
Talking about the Web 2.0 standouts in her previously cited article, Kara Swisher says:
“Each of these companies has a massive base of women consumers, in some cases well over 50 percent of its audience.”
In The Plain Numbers About Tech, Whitney Hess says:
“not only are women in tech mostly invisible, the vast majority of those who on display are selling, not making. This is a problem. This is a big problem.”
Citing a comScore whitepaper containing data on women’s internet usage, Hess goes on to say that:
“women are significantly more active social media and e-commerce users than men. So if the primary target audiences of most high traffic sites are women, why are only men designing and developing these systems?”
In Blacks, Latinos, and Women Lose Ground at Silicon Valley Tech Companies, Mike Swift quotes Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology research director Caroline Simard as saying:
“If everybody around the table is the same, the same ideas will tend to come up. If you have a diversity of race, gender, age, educational and different life experiences, people will attack a problem from different perspectives, and that will lead to innovation. In an industry that thrives on innovation, like high tech, it’s especially important.”
This leads us to our final question: what can we do to stop this trend of the lack of women in high-tech startups? Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sums up what career women can do to stop the trend in her brilliant talk entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” (see video below):
- Sit at the table. Be more assertive, be more confident and be aggressive. The challenge to this is that being less aggressive in women is often equated with likeability – the more aggressive a woman is, the more people disliked her.
- Make your partner a real partner – let your husband be an equal partner at home so that you won’t be too tired when you get to the office.
- Don’t leave before you leave. Always strive for the best in your career. Don’t lean back, always put your best foot forward so that you’ll get the promotion (and the position) that you deserve.
There are also organizations working towards improving entrepreneurship among women. Women 2.0 and Astia are examples. In The Decade of the Women Entrepreneur, Women 2.0 founder Charania says that:
“[we] still have to reach out directly to women in the workforce and show them that being a founder is a great way to live life and change the world on your own terms. Women 2.0 educates through marketing channels that include social media, video interviews with female founders, and involvement in networking or other business-oriented organizations where women are spending their time outside of work.”
For her part, Astia CEO Vosmek says:
“Astia has really invested the last ten years in building out far more than a program. Instead, it has built a community that will validate not only a woman’s business opportunity, but also her skill set as it’s matched to that opportunity. That has to be very specific and intentional work—to directly address a woman’s need for a community’s commitment to provide expertise, to provide investment, and to confirm that high-growth entrepreneurship is what she should pursue.”
Hopefully, the above organizations, and others similar to them, will continue to be there in the years ahead to help guide women entrepreneurs as they forge new trails in the Web 2.0 world. Similarly, women would do well to heed the advice from Facebook COO Sandberg. If we are to continue to innovate and lead in the technology field, it is imperative that we find women leaders for our boardrooms and C-level positions.