Women in technology startups: a few things each of us can do (DRAFT)

DRAFT!  Work in progress, feedback welcome!
revised version intended as a two-part series on NWEN’s blog

WWII image of a woman: Yes we can!

It’s a numbers game. There are far fewer women in tech than men. So anyone genuinely interested in changing the ratio and evening out the balance, has to more than meet women halfway …

— Cindy Gallop in No One’s Blaming Anyone on WIMN’s Voices

Shira Ovide’s Wall Street Journal article Addressing the Lack of Women Running Tech Startups kicked off the latest women-in-technology firestorm, and Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch rant  Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men.  Or at least stop blaming me sent it into overdrive.   The list of 30+ links on Liminal States includes views from the Seattle area community in Sasha Pasulka’s excellent Stop Telling People How They Should Feel About It on Seattle 2.0, Cameron Sorden’s Women in Tech, Men in Tech, and the Blame Game and my own  Fretting, Asking, and Begging Isn’t a Plan.

Good stuff!

One consistent theme in the responses to Arrington’s post is that blame isn’t helpful.  The underlying causes of gender inequity and other diversity problems in the tech industry are complex, including education, cultural norms, the advantages of the “old boys club”, and sexism.*    Most people I talk to, no matter what their gender, agree that it would be a better if the industry and their organization were more balanced.**

So how to make progress?  Here are a few things each of us can do:

  • Mentor women (suggested by Ja-Naé Duane in 5 Simple Ways to Help Women as Tech Leaders).  Finding good mentors is a huge challenge for women, and Elizabeth Stark’s The Gender Gap in Tech: Why Mentors Matter describes why it’s so important.
  • Reach out when you’re hiring.  The Geek Feminism Wiki’s resource page is a good starting point for this. At my most recent startup, we made sure to get our job descriptions  reviewed by women and diversity experts to make sure they were equally inviting to women, and routinely posted them on Digital Eve Seattle as well as other lists.  And if any angels and VCs happen to be reading this, please pay attention: you’re in a uniquely leveraged position to encourage diversity, so please work towards having a diverse team yourselves as well as encouraging diversity in your companies.
  • Reach out even when you’re not hiring.  Allyson Kapin (aka @WomenWhoTech) and Aliza Sherman both list some of the many organizations working in this space: Anita Borg Institute, She’s Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women 2.0, Girls in Tech, Astia, Pipeline Women ….  In Seattle, there’s TechMavens and the Professional Women of Color Network as well as Digital Eve.  Get involved with them.  If you’re looking for expert speakers at a conference or event, they’ve got plenty of good resources.  And don’t forget Twitter; follow hashtags like  #geekfeminism, #womaninnovator, and #fem2 and RT stuff you think people will find interesting.
  • Get out of your cultural cocoon (as suggested by Carol Tran of  Chic Meets Geek in this excellent  video).  Shireen Mitchell points out that using social media to diversify your online network is only the first step; real world connections matter a lot too.  Last month I went to a CRAVE Seattle networking event, and got to experience the role reversal of being one of only two guys in a room and realizing that everybody was looking at me and wondering what I was doing there — and met a bunch of people I never would have otherwise.
  • Mention women, not just men:*** track the ratio of men to women that you mention in your email, blog posts, tweets, or “top 25” lists “.  Is it lopsided?  As K. Tempest Bradford describes on Geek Feminism, it can happen easily enough: “when measuring the nebulous concept of ‘influence’ a lot of gut decisions are made that have more to do with personal perceptions than other factors.”  If so, look for ways to bring balance.  If you’re giving out awards, look at your committee: if they’re 80% male, then you probably won’t have a lot of women finalists and winners.

Of course, these only scratch the tip of the iceberg.  There are plenty more good suggestions in the articles and sites I link to above — and please drop your own in the comments!


* Vivek Wadhwa’s Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VC’s have a Gender Problem, Janine de Nysschen’s Why Men Get VC Money and Women Don’t….and How that is Changing, and the definitive women in CS/STEM thread on Geek Feminism have a lot of data, and if you’re not familiar with the issue are great starting points.

** Although if you’re an entrepeneur or investor reading this and don’t think diversity matters for you, I’d encourage you to think again.  As Clara Byrne notes on VentureBeat, female employees and co-founders are a competitive advantage; on TechCrunch Europe, Inmaculada Martinez goes into more detail in It’s time to hire more women in startups – your products deserve it. .  Paying attention to diversity — gender, race, age, and all the other dimensions — opens new opportunities, broadens your hiring pool and investment options, helps you avoid blind spots, and results in products that are more appealing to everybody.   It’s getting harder and harder to deny there’s a problem, and that the advantages moving ahead will go to those who address it most quickly.

*** For more on this, see Shelley Powers’ Guys don’t link,  Susan Herring et al’s Women and children last: the discursive construction of Weblogs.  And as always, look for similar patterns — and take similar steps to improve the situation — with other dimensions of diversity like race and age as well.

Jon Pincus is a Seattle-area strategist, writer, and activist, currently volunteering for NWEN and co-chairing the First Look Forum with Rochelle Whelan.