Women in tech startups: how each of us can help change the ratio, parts 2 and 3 (DRAFT)

DRAFT!  Feedback welcome!

Part of a series for NWEN’s blog

WWII image of a woman: Yes we can!

Obviously this isn’t just a problem for women, nor just in technology… we run across the problem anytime our society has an “in” group that we want to figure out how to equalize (immigrants, race, sex, age, etc.). Since the male/female ratio is likely to stay about even throughout society, it might be an easier(?)/good(?) place to really try to work it out and benefit a whole lot of other “out” groups.

— Beth Klem, in a comment on an earlier draft

If you missed part 1, after a brief intro discussing the Arrington kerfuffle and started on a list of things we can each do as individuals to help change the ratio: Commit to putting some energy and resources into it, Mentor women, and Get out of your cultural cocoon.

There’s a lot more to be said but first I’d like to highlight something I think is particularly important: while the current discussion is focusing primarily on women in technology, the underlying challenges are much broader and even more complex.

People of color, LGTBQs, people with disabilities, older people, youth, non-native English speakers … all of them face huge biases and are generally underrepresented in technology. The broad categories disguise significant differences. Black women, Latin@s, Native American women, etc. all have unique experiences at aren’t captured in “people of color”. And the challenges are toughest at the intersections: women with disabilities, older women, rural women … the list goes on.

So while my examples are primarily about women, please keep other dimensions of diversity in mind as you’re reading this — similar approaches are needed there as well. And if you’re a blogger or wiki type who would like to expand the examples and recommendations here in additional dimensions, please do!

Thank you for listening. We now return to the discussion of changing the ratio of women in technology.

  • Reach out when you’re hiring. The Geek Feminism Wiki’s resource page is a good starting point for this. At Qworky, we made sure to get our job descriptions reviewed by women and diversity experts to make sure they were equally inviting to everybody, 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. There are plenty of great resources out there when you’re looking for experts, speakers, community members, guest bloggers. In Seattle, there’s TechMavens and the Professional Women of Color Network as well as Digital Eve. Nationally, 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 …. why not get involved with one of them? And don’t forget Twitter; follow hashtags like #geekfeminism, #womaninnovator, and #fem2 and RT stuff you think people will find interesting.
  • Ask “what’s wrong with this picture?” (from a comment by Joshua on an earlier draft) Pictures of all-male and all-white “top 10” lists or executive staffs or conference speakers are so common that it’s easy for people not to notice there’s something missing. So when you see a situation like this, say something about it: contact the author, write a letter to the editor or a blog post, discuss it with friends. This is especially important for guys to do: when women bring it up, they’re frequently viewed as complainers, whiners, and/or bitches.* And look at what picture you’re getting of the world as well: if almost none of your information sources are women, you’re missing out on a lot.

There’s still more to cover. Coming up next: Do the required reading, Promote women (not just men), and Be a role model.


* although this has been known to happens to guys who bring it up too …

Rough draft of part 3 ….

  • Promote 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.
  • Be a role model.  Women benefit a lot from good role models — and so do guys who are interested in becoming allies.

These are a lot of work, so I just want to close on an upnote by highlighting why diversity matters so much to NWENs audience of entrepeneurs, investors, and service providers with another qutoe from Cindy Gallop, CEO of IfWeRanTheWorld:

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 on WIMN’s Voices

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.  Marylene Delbourg-Delphis’ excellent When good investment decisions end up backing more women CEOs: Conversation with Cameron Lester at Azure Capital on Grade A Entrepeneurs has a couple of great examples of the value of a diverse network; look around a little and you’ll find plenty more.

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.