A Pink Collar Tech Ghetto?

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By Tara Hunt (Co-Founder & CEO, Buyosphere)

Jolie O’Dell, who is one of my favorite people in the world tweeted something yesterday that got the women of the tech world (and many men) up in arms.

It also ignited quite a lively backchannel conversation amongst the various women in tech groups I’m part of. The reactions (including mine) ranged from “I can see her point, but ‘embarrassment’ is a harsh way to put it,” to “OMFG &*#(&#)@#*@!” Mine was somewhere in between, but the biggest thing that struck me was how familiar it sounded.

And it isn’t a familiar because I’m a woman founding a fashion/shopping site, it’s familiar because in every single profession where the population of women starts growing, the same thing happens and the same sentiments get voiced.

As the number of women doctors grew, there was (and still is) an outcry because female physicians outnumber male physicians in pediatrics and female residents outnumber male residents in family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pathology, and psychiatry.

I’ve heard the same said about women lawyers: they pick ‘softer’ forms of law to pursue such as non-profit, family, government and general practices. Women are less likely to run a firm or become partners at a firm and more likely to be in-house council.

But this isn’t the issue. Nature or nurture or interests or whatever, if more women choose to practice medicine, law or do startups around the stuff we are familiar with, I’m not too concerned. I figure as time goes on and our entrance into professions becomes more common, things will even out.

What I’m concerned about is the sentiment around the decision to pursue more feminized versions of these professions. The feminine itself is negatively valued.

Feminine = Soft/Bad/Stupid/Shallow/Underachieving/Embarrassing ??

Think about how we assign value to certain things like: logical vs. emotional. Or independent vs. dependent. Or analytical vs. intuitive. I’ll bet when you read the words, you instantly understood what ‘gender’ was assigned to each (and when I say gender, I don’t mean men vs women. I mean masculine vs. feminine.).

Neither is better or worse, but depending on the context, there is a differential in how they are valued. And in the tech industry, being emotional, dependent and intuitive is a death sentence… unless you are a man who has a ‘proven’ record (proven being the uber masculine differentiator).

The same goes for types of startups. Business tools = good. Analytics = good. Content aggregators = good. Productivity apps = good. Shopping = bad. Fashion = bad. Babies = bad. UNLESS… you are a man. Diapers.com was founded by two men. They are super rich now. Zappos.com was founded by men. They’ve done pretty well. Amazon, Bluefly, Kaboodle, Shopstyle, Stylefeeder, eBay… the list goes on.

One could argue all of the founders behind these have done pretty well for themselves and even the sites that aren’t super popular were acquired for good money and had good exits. I don’t know… sounds like a shopping (baby and fashion) startup is a pretty solid, awesome, smart, hardcore, good, kickass type of startup to have.

So why is it so embarrassing to have so many women entering the startup world through such a lucrative entry point?

Because, well, it’s embarrassing because we are so few and there is so much hope pinned on our performance. We’ve been begging and screaming to get included and then we show up in high heels talking about designer snugglies and nail polish. Damn these women being all womeny talking about women stuff! Who invited these ones to the party? Where are the serious female entrepreneurs?

Right here. In high heels. Wearing great nail polish (I swear by this stuff… it’ll extend your manicure for… never mind). I’m emotionally and intuitively navigating through this. And I’m dependent on more people than I feel comfortable with: my customers, my users, my co-founders, my advisors, my boyfriend, other startups, my friends, the weather, the economy… you name it.

When I moved to San Francisco in 2005, it took me about 6 months to deny myself my femininity. It wasn’t fashionable to be fashionable. I moved to San Francisco with a closet full of designer dresses, suits and shoes and within 6 months all I was wearing were jeans and t-shirts. I am ecstatic to see photos of events filled with women in dress clothes and high heels.

My only embarrassment lies in that I didn’t have the *erm* balls to be the woman I am back then.

Instead of embarrassed that there are so many women doing startups involving fashion/shopping/babies, I’m proud. I’m proud of a truly inclusive tech scene where women can women, men can men, women can men, men can women and all sorts of other genderific combinations thereof. And I, for one, welcome the pink ghettoization of the tech startup scene –- at least for the time being -– because it means women are making a grand entrance. And what an entrance it is!

This was originally posted at Tara Hunt’s blog.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

Abou the guest blogger: Tara “missrogue” Hunt is a crazy audacious dreamer and the co-founder and CEO of Buyosphere (where you build your ‘buy’ography). Tara was named as one of the most influential women in technology as well as one of the 25 female startup founders to watch in Fast Company Magazine. She wrote The Whuffie Factor/The Power of Social Networking (published in 8 languages), is a conference speaker and co-founded the international coworking movement. Follow her on Twitter at @missrogue.

  • http://losing-civ.blogspot.com Sarai

    Well… I dunno, I struggle with this. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s embarrassing, but it is definitely just reinforcing the gender divide – I mean pregnancy and babies aren’t about men. It’s like there are women who want to get into “girly” start ups. The reason I struggle is because the concept of “girly” is one of the reasons why the divide in tech still exists. I would love to see more women creating startups that are gender neutral. Personally, mine is being built around education. What is grating me at the moment is that I have to still earn enough money to cover my damn bills but still find enough time to work on it. So maybe I’m just grumpy, who knows. :)

  • http://PhenomenalContent.com Christina Gleason @ Phenomenal Content

    There are plenty of women in “non-feminine” startups. I run my own (small) copywriting company with a team of writers I’ve hand-picked. Despite the countless number of amazing women writers I’ve worked with over the years, it’s apparently still considered a masculine profession… Just ask Men with Pens.

    Okay, so I’m not bringing in the Big Bucks or anything (yet) – but have you gotten a load of the talented ladies who founded companies like Outspoken Media and Canadian SEO?

    As for the “girly” startups? In case people haven’t noticed, women control the *cough* purse strings in this country. If women want to start businesses around babies, shopping, etc. – that’s because there’s a huge market out there in these very areas.

    Feminism doesn’t have to be about shunning everything traditionally female. People need to stop acting like it is.

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  • http://kappaluppa.com Kappaluppa

    The thing that is embarrassing is women who condemn women who are out there fighting the good fight. They then become part of the machine we so often find ourselves battling against.

    I agree with Christina… Why should women leave opportunity on the table because it has to do with things thought of being feminine, or “girly”? That’s just as bad as if I was to tell my daughters that they could not be in construction because it’s “Man’s work.” Or any other type of industry that is male dominated.

    And, Tara, go dig out those awesome designer dresses and shoes. Because as of the writing of this article your “erm” balls are showing…

  • http://marginhancers.com Mary Baum

    I wonder if the girly content makes it hard for the guys to see the tech. Would it help to make sure that the higher the heels, the geekier – and more financially geeky, too – the talk?

    I’m a child of the 70s who once thought that it would be a deliciously in-your face act of feminism for a litigator to argue an appellate case while heavily pregnant. And, of course, that’s a commonplace today.

    But that means I’m also oldschool enough to think that a girly startup might have a better shot at oldboy acceptance if they’re not depending on outside (read: male) expertise for coding and financials – only for in-house, supervised labor.

    (Though it would be better if those jobs went to young women.)

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  • Sabrina

    I lived through the 1980s, an era where women were supposed to forget about being women, and to instead tough and all business in order to be taken ‘seriously’. We wore unflattering masculine looking skirted suits complete with floppy bow tie, wore sensible shoes or pumps, and learned not to crack a smile or god forbid cry in the office. Where did it lead us? I’ll tell you. Still hitting the glass ceiling. Spending our lives alone with no husband and no prospects for finding once one you passed age 40. It was the women who didn’t follow “the rules” and who remained true to themselves and dressed in feminine ways who wound up moving ahead…and they got the man and the family, too! Let’s not bring back the ’80s. It’s too bad that woman who tweeted that offensive statement can’t or won’t realize that it’s never “embarrassing” to be a woman, and saying that is merely reflects her self loathing.

  • Sabrina

    Just a correction here: eBay was not founded by a man. It was founded by Meg Whitman who last time I looked is a woman.

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