Thoughts on TechCrunch & Silicon Valley’s Gender Problem

Giff Constable technology

In the leadup to Vivek Wadhwa’s TechCrunch article today on Silicon Valley’s gender problem, I saw him twittering with my friend and former colleague Susan Wu (now CEO of Ohai) about the topic. Susan wrote:

There’s implict & explicit gender discrimination. It’s the implicit, subconscious, unstudied stuff that is the most difficult to overcome.”  and “it’s the unconscious, unexamined biases that are most pernicious. just because you dont ‘discriminate’ doesn’t mean you aren’t

It was upsetting to hear Susan, who has been on both sides of the entrepreneur/VC fence, echo comments I had heard from others, like Caterina Fake, in past.  Startups are hard enough as it is without some discrimination bullshit being dumped on top.  Part of me is proud to have a female co-founder and CTO, and it is important because so many of our customers will be women, but really I just feel lucky because she’s an incredible partner — super-smart, determined, practical, and she makes me a better entrepreneur.

Wadhwa’s article has good intentions but how he framed his thoughts bugged me. It felt a little too politically correct; I liked the thoughts from Sharon Vosmek in the article and “funded female” in the comments.  Here are some thoughts of my own:

  • VC fundraising is enormously frustrating, and more people hear no than yes.  It is damn hard to raise money as an outsider / first timer, no matter what gender or ethnicity you are.  VCs make snap judgements about people and concepts, which leads them to make good and bad calls about men as well as women.  When is it a good/bad call versus actual discrimination and how can you tell? Still, I can understand how the biases Susan mentions can rear their head when a bunch of guys are trying to evaluate someone they understand less well, whether it be a female entrepreneur or someone from a foreign culture.
  • More women in VC will be healthy for the whole industry, not least because VCs could better evaluate companies that target women (only a hugely important customer demographic).  VCs might protest that the scarcity of female partners isn’t due to old-boy attitudes but rather a historically small pool of successful female tech entrepreneurs (and lawyers/bankers) who want to switch into VC, but they would do well to try to expand the ranks.
  • When you ask most software engineers in their late-twenties and older how many women were in their college comp-sci programs, you’ll often hear a number like 1% to 3%.  When you try to hire for a dev position, it is depressing how few female applicants you will get.  I hope that is changing — the stats showing increased participation of women in math and engineering were the most promising parts of that article.
  • It is harder starting a tech company if you are not an engineer (as I am not).  Most of the female founders I know (and they are an impressive lot, mind you), are not engineers.
  • The question about risk profile as a *general rule* across the sexes is not without merit at first glance, but when you think about how many women run their own small businesses outside of tech, you realize that it is probably irrelevant.
  • Quite a few comments in the TechCrunch post referenced discrimination towards African-Americans, but given the success of Asians and South Asians in Silicon Valley, can one really make an argument towards pervasive skin discrimination? The African-Americans I know in tech, which I grant is an unfortunately small number, have huge respect from their peers.

Final Thoughts
From a female entrepreneur’s perspective, I wonder if it isn’t better to ignore all of this.  Entrepreneurs run into a zillion roadblocks of all shapes and sizes, and you just have to push on.  A women might indeed come across a sexist VC, but she’s better off not working with that person.  Other VCs might dislike me because I’m over 30 and not an engineer.  So be it.  I’ve learned that you can’t waste too much time being mad at the people who don’t believe in you (although some of that anger can be useful), but rather you must just believe in yourself and keep on pressing on.

The good news is that there are so many more female entrepreneurs now than when I started years ago, so mindsets, mentors, supportive peers, and all those important things are changing for the better.  As for my co-founder and all you female entrepreneurs I’ve met out there, you rock!