In the wake of the resignations of Dave McLure (500 Startups), Justin Caldbeck (Binary Capital), and, of course, Travis Kalanick (Uber), I think it’s incumbent on everyone in the tech industry to not just take a pledge, but to take an active stand on the issue of sexism in the tech industry and, in particular, in Silicon Valley. This isn’t because it’s something new, it’s because the issue is finally being taken seriously and there is momentum that needs a few more pushes to really get rolling downhill. I’d like to see more people both sharing stories to show what a big deal this is as well as making suggestions for fixing it. So with that, here’s my experience.
First, let me say that there is undeniably a serious and endemic issue here. I’ve given hundreds of pitches to investors in the course of my career both as the principal and in the best supporting role for both male and female CEOs. I’ve seen the difference in how these executives were received. I’ve been asked to effectively put a pre-nuptial agreement into investment documents (literally, not figuratively) when I’ve presented with a female executive. And I’ve seen an entire sector (online childcare) – which now supports billions in market capitalization – belittled as a “babysitters club”.
The numbers alone tell a striking story. A priori, any industry that is only 7% women clearly in decision-making roles has some kind of gender gating. And it’s true at the engineering level as well. Phrases like “engineering culture” often get conflated with “brogramming” and for investors “pattern recognition” has become a euphemism for profiling and outright sexism. If you only fund or partner with entrepreneurs who look like the ones you’ve seen before, you just get more 20-something Asian and white guys.
Dean Kamen’s wise aphorism that you get what you celebrate applies here as well. The zeitgeist of the tech industry has become about celebrating the indefinite prolonging of adolescence. Sometimes that becomes explicit as in the eulogies to some of the fallen – for example Kalanick was celebrated for his ability to spend 12 hours in a hot tub. Sometimes it is more visible in the products that are being created. But until that changes, it’s unlikely to be a welcoming place for women.
As a tech founder and CEO myself, I am proud that Public Good is 44% female including a woman cofounder/executive and women in every functional area. We’re a small team, but it’s difficult to correct a bad course later than it is to focus early on. I believe that one critical aspect to achieving and maintaining that is understanding that a lot of what has driven women out of the industry can seem to many men to be subtle. For example, many engineers like to talk about their beards. While it may seem trivial, this clearly isn’t something women can really relate to. When the problem in many cases is, as Cheryl Sandberg points out, women not having the confidence to lead, these things really matter. An inclusive culture encourages that confidence so focusing on that and starting early are certainly keys to success. I welcome more advice and suggestions and hope these ideas are useful to someone as well.
To paraphrase Bill Gates, if you’re not fully utilizing half the taken in the country it’s not clear how America’s tech industry will continue to lead the world.