By Rachel Sklar (Founder, Change The Ratio)
This Monday will see TechCrunch Disrupt kick off once again in San Francisco. Leaving aside the recent brouhaha about TechCrunch (get yourself caught up here and here here), it remains one of the most important and influential tech conferences around, lining up top-notch speakers, panels and attendees, making news and generating an epic number of tweets.That’s why it was such a big deal for me to speak on an all-women panel at last year’s event.
The “Women In Tech” panel at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2010 was added in response to a dialogue with Michael Arrington about the ratio of women to men represented onstage at tech conferences (see here, here and here). It was…feisty!
There were certainly some strong opinions on the issue, multiple viewpoints on the best way to acknowledge and address it. While the ideal, of course, is to have awesome women talking onstage about anything other than this topic, it did started a conversation, about which many people disagreed but few could ignore. And it got some great women onstage presenting who would otherwise not have attended. Fundamentally, it changed the ratio — and was a factor in changing the ratio in a multitude of real, specific ways going forward. For that, feisty though it was, I really can’t thank Michael Arrington and Sarah Lacy enough.
A year later, I’ve pulled together a transcript of the panel for posterity — and a great counterpoint to where we were, and how far we’ve come. I’m happy to report that much of what is debated on this panel seems ludicrously out of date today. Either way, if you have time to kill and a bottle of wine to kill along with it, this makes for some good reading — and good watching, if you are so inclined (see the video here).
TechCrunch Disrupt’s Women In Tech Panel Participants: Rachel Sklar, Mediaite Editor-at-Large and co-founder of Change The Ratio; Lauren Leto, founder of Bnter and Texts From Last Night; Cyan Banister, founder of Zivity; Sara Chipps, founder of GirlDevelopIt; Leila Janah, founder of Samasource; Michelle Greer, web strategist and tech-scene veteran, and moderated by Sarah Lacy, TechCrunch columnist and author of Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos.
— Rachel Sklar
SARAH: First of all, some people on this panel would have you believe that we need to raise awareness that there is not enough women in tech. So, I just want to get this done really quickly. Can we get a show of hands in the audience: anyone who is shocked that there’s more men than women working in tech? Anyone who is shocked at the news that there’s more men in leadership positions than women? All right, one guy in the back. Ok, I suggest you look around the room. Ok, you’re not shocked anymore. Now that it’s not an awareness problem that there’s more men in tech than women, let’s talk about what we’re going to get done today other than raise awareness.
As Eric alluded to this isn’t a panel I thought we should have. I don’t like women being tokens on stage. I have an issue with it and that’s what’s going on here. Mike asked me to do it. Essentially we’re here because you [Rachel Sklar] think TechCrunch is holding down women. That’s what started all this.
RACHEL: Oh, come now. That’s not what I said. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal about the dearth of leadership positions for women in the tech community. And I started an initiative called Change The Ratio, which addresses the ratio that you just pointed out and is very visible here.
Before we get into this I actually think it’s important to say that I actually think that this is a great panel, I’m psyched to be on it. I’m psyched to see all these people on it who might not have been added to other panels. I appreciate being invited and I think it’s awesome that the needle is now being moved. The ratio is being changed because you — because Michael Arrington — made the decision to see the issue and make it happen. So, my quote in the Wall Street Journal was I wanted to raise awareness so that people would see an event like TechCrunch Disrupt and not be able to not notice the overwhelming maleness of the line-up.
I mean, if we’re getting into it, it’s really hard to find conferences, panels, magazine articles, where women have even close to gender parity. We’re not talking about 50/50, 60/40, 70/30 —
SARAH: I’m not disagreeing with you. As I said, and the audience obviously agrees, this isn’t news to everyone. We can pick up a magazine, we can see this. I’ve been a reporter for 15 years. I mean, I know I’ve written more men in business than women in business. We try every year to get as many women on a panel as possible. What’s the awareness problem?
RACHEL: Well, I guess there must be one –- Is there one?
SARAH: Let’s talk about the root problems but what’s the awareness issue? Do you really think TechCrunch doesn’t write about women? You really think VCs don’t fund women because they’re women?
RACHEL: The awareness issue might be saying OK if we’ve got a ratio issue then recognizing that it would be a major benefit to change it. I mean, the tech community is about innovation and there’s no two ways about it that diversity begets innovation.
CYAN: I don’t think it starts with this panel, I don’t think this panel solves anything. I just don’t think that diversity—I don’t believe in affirmative action. I don’t believe in artificially creating panels and putting women on stage unless it’s merit driven.
SARAH CHIPPS: I agree, I think it’s not so much us getting up here and talking about it. I think educating people is great; I don’t think anyone here though —- except for that guy apparently —- isn’t aware of the ratio problem. What I think is important—in this panel especially, in the next half hour—is that we talk about what we’re doing about it and how we’re changing it, rather than talking about the problem. Because everyone knows.
SARAH: Ok, Michelle, let’s start with you. We were talking back stage and you had some interesting things to say about the view that women -— there’s a good business case around that tech companies need to hire more women now.
MICHELLE: Well, we all heard from Mark Pincus from Zynga and if you actually look at the average player of Farmville, it’s a 43-year-old female. And so you look at the web and you look at the consumers on the web and they’re women. And then you look at the people creating the software, the architects, the people who come up with the ideas to accommodate these ideas and they’re men. I don’t think that’s necessarily men trying to keep women down, I don’t think it’s some sort of conspiracy. I think a lot of it is because when you’re a girl and you think of software development, you don’t think it’s a career for you. And I think we should change that. I look at what you’re doing in New York and it’s like you’ve got Mommy Bloggers; why can’t there be Mommy Coders? Why can’t we create software for the people who are using the product?
LEILA: I think we’re talking about the symptom and not the cause. I read that fewer than 12% of computer science degrees every year are awarded to women. So until we get more women in the STEM fields -— science, technology, engineering and math —- there’s no way there are going to be more women in technology.
SARAH: Now you’re quoting stats but that’s actually a very contentious issue. When we’ve written before that there’s not as many women graduating with math and science degrees, we get a flood of hate mail. (To Rachel) So, do you want to take issue with that?
RACHEL: Oh, I don’t take issue with any of that. Actually what I take issue with is the notion that in order for a woman to be considered a “woman in tech” there has to be a math, science, computer science background. I mean, Gary Vaynerchuk is awesome, but he started making videos about wine. He recognized a need and he used social media. He used new media to fill it. I mean, even TechCrunch -— TechCrunch is, you know, Mike Arrington, is a former lawyer. Unless I’m wrong, he doesn’t have a computer science degree. So I think that that’s a misnomer and one of the things I do see when we’re having these conversations is people do try to hem it into, like, “women in tech” into a very narrow category.
Being an entrepreneur means having vision, seeing a need that needs to be filled, being creative and then executing with a great team that -– again, I’m going to hammer home the diversity point because when you have a group of diverse people sitting around then what you get is a bunch of different perspectives, a bunch of different viewpoints and you see things. Does anyone play Boggle? You know how you turn the board around and you see a word you didn’t see before? That’s what it’s like to sit with a bunch of people who have a slightly different perspective than you. Change The Ratio is not only about women, although that’s our core. But it’s also about minorities as well and people of color and you don’t see that much of a representation of that here. And I think it’s all an issue.
CYAN: I take offense to that actually. I think if we were to ask people in the audience who in this audience is Jewish, Italian, different groups that actually have been discriminated against, probably half the people here would stand up —
RACHEL: Oh, I’m Jewish.
SARAH: I’m technically enough Native American that I could legally be part of the tribe.
MICHELLE: Ok, but as it pertains to this panel —- Gary Vaynerchuk is great and he makes lots of money but if you look at who TechCrunch covers it’s software companies. And why should there not be people who are not technical on stage? Well, it’s because TechCrunch’s audience cares about software and women aren’t creating it in numbers that we would like. So I don’t take offense to the fact that women aren’t on panels in massive numbers. I just think we should address the core issue which is why aren’t women creating software.
LEILA: I think there’s a twin issue —- so I agree with you that you don’t have to have a CS degree to start a company. I don’t have one; I feel really ill-equipped, that said, to have started my company. But I think there is a larger sort of cultural issue, which is that women often want a more balanced life than men do. Carol Bartz said this great thing in the Her Code Report which was published last year which was that women want to wake up in the morning, cook breakfast for the kids, do yoga on the way to work, run a company all day and come back and have a good life. I have to say I have found it to be true of so many women that I have tried to hire that they want more work/life balance. And the reality is if you want to found a company, work/life balance isn’t going to be there for 2 years. Maybe that’s controversial but -—
RACHEL: I know lots of dudes who carve time out for their family and I know lots of women, myself included, who just can’t do the yoga thing. I’m not flexible enough.
SARAH: Ok, be fair though, how old are you girls?
RACHEL: I’m 37.
LAUREN: I’m 23.
SARAH: Ok, let’s see how you feel in 10 years about work/life balance. When you are 23 you are balls out, you are working all the time, you are killing yourself -—
LAUREN: I mean, I don’t think you really know me. I mean obviously -—
SARAH: I don’t, I just met you on stage. [joking] Ok, you’re not balls out! You’re not working hard! Is that what you’re saying? Sorry, I was just trying to compliment you.
LAUREN: I love what I do. I’m so blessed. If I could change my life right now I would go back to school and get a computer science degree. And I think that the way to get more women into tech is to have more women who are computer science majors. Which is why I love what Sarah Chipps is doing.
SARAH: Ok, the point is, we’re talking about two different things. We’re talking about women in tech and we’re talking about women starting companies, which we’re conflating. Those are two totally different things. There are women who are coders, who are in management, who are executives in companies, there are women like me who write about tech and up until this morning worked at a start-up, so you could say I was a woman in tech. And then there are people who are starting companies and there are women entrepreneurs. And I do agree with you that the women in tech issue is not a work/life balance thing. I think what Carol is talking about is being the CEO of a publicly traded company. And, you know, there are lots of different versions of entrepreneurship. But if you’re doing the Mark Zuckerberg or Michael Arrington level of entrepreneurship, you can’t have kids.
RACHEL: All right, well, I just don’t want people telling me what little slot I’m supposed to fit into. Because I read the Arrington description of what his day is like and the first thing I noticed is that he gets out of bed and goes to his computer. Like, mine’s on the floor next to my bed. I pick it up. That’s not healthy, I’m not endorsing that. All I’m saying is that I can compete on the workaholic front — but the point is that I think this is so counterproductive. We’re trying to say women do this and women do this, and 23-year-olds do this and 37-year-olds do this. Like, no. It’s half the population with a wide range of -—
SARAH: Well, do you want to talk about the causes or not? If you want to talk about awareness, you have to talk about the causes. But then every time someone’s bringing up the causes, you’re getting mad and saying—
I don’t understand what you want to talk about. I don’t understand what the dialogue you want to have is.
RACHEL: The dialogue I want to have is about recognizing that -—
SARAH: We’ve recognized. We got that over with at the beginning.
RACHEL: All right. Going forward the fact that there’s a benefit to including women, there’s a benefit to considering women, there’s a benefit to writing about women, and there’s a benefit to having women included in everything. And I think it’s ridiculous that this is a situation I have to be defensive about.
SARAH: I think it is too. I think it’s ridiculous that you think we look at an awesome startup that comes in and we go, “Oh, but it’s a woman CEO, we’re not writing about that one!” Cyan, you’ve started companies —- you fund companies, you’re an angel investor. Do you really think that people go into VC offices that have a great idea and they’re women and VCs say, “We’re not funding a woman.” Do you think TechCrunch, do you think other blogs, don’t write about women when we find great women?
CYAN: Absolutely not. In fact I’ve seen nothing but red carpets for most women in our industry.
SARAH: And I’m totally for that. I privately mentor tons of women. Any women who reach out to me and want a career in Silicon Valley or a career in media and want to talk to me about -— you know I think there’s absolutely sexism. I’ve gotten loads of sexism. But guess what? It made me work a lot harder. I think every entrepreneur, I think every successful human being, is successful because they’ve overcome adversity. So it’s not something that I’ve —-
RACHEL: But you don’t want to see adversity built into the system -—
SARAH: Ok, I just want to finish my point, Rachel.
SARAH (cont’d): Ok, I just want to point out I think that mentoring is great because I do think there are unique challenges women face in every industry. That’s totally different to me than doing another blog post saying the exact same problem to drive comments.
SARAH CHIPPS: Right, and I don’t think sexism is an issue. I don’t know about you ladies, but as a developer I have gotten so much assistance from the men out there. They are so welcoming. Everyone wants this to be changed. I have never been in a situation where I have been like, “Gosh, it would be so much easier if I wasn’t a woman.” Everyone out there is championing the idea.
RACHEL: I have noticed that being a woman has made a difference, both sometimes beneficially but also—I have spoken to a lot of women but I’m not sure how many men in the audience have been told to watch their tone when they’re speaking authoritatively on something. I mean, there are little things—I don’t want to dwell on the negative. You talked about how you think a woman can come in with a great idea to a VC company and present it. I’ve been talking to people. I am now a lightning rod for women that want to tell me their stories. I have a ton of anecdotal stories about how a woman will be presenting to a room full of dudes and then they’ll be like, “Well, if that was such a good idea then my wife would have thought that.” And that is a true story, of a company that ended up being funded and is one of the hot female-started startups.
SARAH: Maybe that guy was a pig? Maybe that’s not a problem with the industry.
RACHEL: I’ve heard “the wife” as the example story in a few different ways.
SARAH: I guess it’s totally different in New York. I’ve been in Silicon Valley more than 10 years. I know lots of women who’ve started companies. I know women who’ve pitched companies that haven’t gotten funded. I’ve heard about inappropriate times where VCs wanted to take the founders to a strip club. I’ve heard weird things like that. I’ve never once heard an anecdote from someone who said, “My wife should have thought of this idea because—“ Have you ever heard that?
LAUREN: Sometimes maybe they use that to frame the demographic though? Maybe they’re saying, “I can’t see my wife using this” or something.
SARAH: Do you guys think it’s possible that this is a New York/San Francisco thing?
RACHEL: It was actually a story about coming back from a trip to the Valley.
OFF-CAMERA: It’s tough for guys to. This isn’t an easy industry. When they walk into—
SARAH: I guarantee you I can point out a bunch of people who would say—
I do this show on TechCrunch TV called Ask A VC where I get letters from viewers to ask a different VC and I announce the VC ahead of time and every time I get letters that say, “We pitched him this awesome idea and he didn’t take us because he doesn’t like us because of this.” I mean, maybe it wasn’t a great idea? That is possible.
RACHEL: I bring it back to the ratio. 80/20 is good, across the board. And when 80/20 is good—for women, I’m talking about 20% women. When you’re looking at that ratio and it isn’t reflective of the population, of the lower levels of the space, it raises a rebuttable presumption that there’s something going on.
LEILA: I think you’re focused on the wrong area. The problem that we need to solve is why women aren’t entering math and science and engineering fields. And that’s a far broader problem than why women are not getting covered.
And second, your organization is called Change The Ratio. I work in poverty alleviation and the problems we’re talking about are rich people problems. 70% of the global poor are women, 3 million women are trafficked every year, are sold into sex trafficking. I feel like we have far bigger problems when we think about gender equality globally than that women aren’t being covered in effin’ TechCrunch.
SARAH CHIPPS: And I think this is only an American issue. If you go to India, if you go to Egypt —
SARAH: No, in fact, Rachel made some potshots at me because I published some data by the World Economic Forum that actually showed in the United States that there’s closer to parity of women in technical and professional jobs than anywhere else in the world.
MICHELLE: Except in computer science.
SARAH: Yeah, but I’m saying is that I think it’s better here in terms of basic job parity. Definitely, there’s not -—
RACHEL: The point was that because we have it better than the rest of the world, then we shouldn’t complain. And like if you apply that to poverty, “Sure we have poverty in the States but it’s not as bad as Bangladesh so we don’t need to do anything about it.” I mean, that’s crazy.
CYAN: We shouldn’t complain.
SARAH: I think you should build something and not complain. I think if you build something good, you’ll succeed.
LEILA: Even if it’s not good. To be honest, as a woman, I feel like people are on the hunt for woman-led companies. I feel like we’ve gotten way too much PR given our size as an organization and the fact that we’re a non-profit that can’t make any VC any money at all. It’s kind of incredible that we’ve been held up the way we have. And I think it’s due in large part to the fact that we’re run by a woman who’s also a minority. And VCs and tech people love that, and they want to support us. It’s just that there aren’t enough of us pitching them.
MICHELLE: Well, so, there are people like that. And that’s awesome. But the simple truth is that we’re all here on this “silly panel” because a bunch of people went on a blog and called me a nasty word repeatedly and said I’ll never make it. There’s no excuse for people behaving that way. I don’t care what color you are, who you are, people should not be treated in such a way for just suggesting that women can be good at math and science too. Because that’s all I really did. But the simple truth is this: we’re here today at TechCrunch Disrupt, which is a blog run by a woman. And it just got acquired from AOL for a ton of money. So it doesn’t matter if people say these things about women. I think Heather Harde is one that has proved that we can be successful too. So they can keep hating, they can hate all they want but it’s a pretty good use case for—how many women do you have on staff?
SARAH: More than half our staff is women —- half our senior staff is women. And I have to say, I’ve been in media for 15 years and this is the first newsroom I’ve worked at where I’m not the only woman covering business and technology.
MICHELLE: But that’s awesome. And it just goes to show you that you can be number 1 with women. So not all men think that way, but there are some that do.
SARAH CHIPPS: I think there’s something to be said about you and Lauren and people that are female founders starting companies, getting out there. Instead of focusing on the problem, let’s champion the people that are doing it.
RACHEL: I have no problem being the person who focuses on the problem, being unpopular, being the person who takes heat on Twitter —-
SARAH: No, no, it’s done great for you. You’re on stage at Disrupt, you drive lots of traffic, you get lots of attention. I think you’ve played it brilliantly.
RACHEL: Yeah, that’s totally why I was after it. But I really want to get back to the point that Michelle made which is that having women involved is a total plus. We’re talking about this TechCrunch event—you know J’aime Ohm, who won the Hackathon, won it with —-
CYAN: She won it because her application was awesome. I want to be straight on that.
RACHEL: I was just about to say before you interrupted me, that she won because she came up with something that was well-needed and it was also something that a woman will come up with. Because her application is basically a black box for a woman’s movements over the course of an evening god forbid something happens. Like, this is something that women think of more than men think of because of the realities of personal safety.
SARAH: Rachel, no one here is arguing women shouldn’t be in businesses. You keep arguing a point that no one is arguing against you.
RACHEL: I just come back to the ratio.
SARAH: I don’t know why you are so defensive about it. Because no one is saying—raise your hand if you’re in this room and think women shouldn’t be in companies.
CYAN: I don’t understand this artificial ratio anyways.
SARAH: I don’t understand what you’re arguing —- who on this panel is saying that companies aren’t better served by having diversity? Who’s saying that?
RACHEL: I think that it’s not that people are saying it. Panels like this happen all the time and people say the right things. But I think that, you know, you just gotta push back against assumptions, the sort of casual nature of who hangs out with who, who refers who. When you say, “We really looked and tried to find a woman to bring in for X, Y and Z”, how far did you look, who did you ask, did you break out of your comfort zone, did you break out of your plane of existence? And I think that’s how you find people. And again it’s not just women, it’s also minorities and I think it’s really important. And I don’t mind being unpopular and saying it. Because if it drives the message home to one person then that’s one person who will be more aware.
CYAN: I think this is a form of collectivism that’s actually quite generous. I think we should celebrate individuals. I am Cyan Banister first; I am woman last. I’m sorry.
RACHEL: I think that individuals are fantastic. Individuals comprise the ratio. And when that ratio is constantly 80/20 men/women, I’m going to keep on banging the drum.
CYAN: Where does this ratio come from? Who made up these numbers?
SARAH CHIPPS: Give these women publicity. Make it so the 9-year-old girls who are sitting at home in front of their computers get to see a successful, powerful woman as much as possible. When you grow up you want to be the successful, pretty woman you’ve seen your whole life. And getting founders, developers, out there in the media —- showing them can inspire these young girls. And then we can change the ratio. Focusing on these individuals is the first step. Besides getting women to ship software and to be founders, another step is making sure that girls in high schools and middle schools know about them.
CYAN: I think it starts with our daughters, it starts very young.
LEILA: What’s the ratio of women who pitch VCs? Do you know?
RACHEL: I mean, it’s probably like under 20%.
SARAH: Oh, it’s definitely under 20%. Is Ron still here?
OFF-CAMERA: Oh, I’d guess it’s under 15 or10% too.
RACHEL: There’s absolutely a step-up problem too. There’s no question about that. And this is like a multi-factorial thing. It’s not easy to, you know, say, correlation and causation. I get it, they’re not always the same. But -—
LEILA: It’s easy to point our fingers at individuals and at companies for not featuring them enough—
RACHEL: There are pathways that are easier for dudes. Because they know other dudes who refer other dudes. That is the reality of it. So it’s just identifying there might be a bottleneck here. So if it’s a bottleneck of information you don’t have or stuff you don’t know that’s going on, find that bottleneck, free it up.
MICHELLE: The pathway to getting into dudedom is not necessarily saying, “We love women!” I worked at Dell in Sales. I was like “Ok, I don’t know how to talk to these guys because they’re a bunch of nerdy tech guys.” And my in was I’m really good at ping pong. So I just got to meet people playing ping pong and then everyone got to know me. And then they notice, “Michelle’s really rockin’ the Salesforce; she’s doing a good job.” So I think that part of it is going to be on the behalf of men to kinda say, “Hey, women can do this stuff too, and maybe I shouldn’t make this gibe because she could be my boss one day.” Which is true. But on the other hand women need to come in and say we’re not that intimidated of men. We’re gonna do the same stuff and on the same plane. I think it takes both sides.
OFF-CAMERA: It’s confidence.
SARAH: Ok, we’ve got about one second left of this misery. So let’s go down the line —- I mean, all you’ve done is just watched us squabble and we could have done that back stage so I appreciate you all being patient—
OFF-CAMERA: Total catfight.
SARAH: So let’s go down the line and I want everyone to say one last sentence about this issue and something that hasn’t been said a million times before. That —- if we do recognize this as a problem, which, look, I do think it’s a problem. As I said, I mentor a ton of young women, I would love to see more women in our field. I just don’t think having a panel helps. So just go down the line and say either your takeaway point or what you think this audience needs to hear to actually to make a change in this, not just having a bunch of people bitching about the issue.
MICHELLE: Well, software development and technology is a noble career for both men and for women. And that’s it.
LEILA: I feel like this discussion is a little funny for me to be part of because I work in the field of poverty alleviation and the plight of women globally is something that’s hard to imagine sitting here in Silicon Valley. I feel like we’re focused on changing the wrong ratio.
SARAH CHIPPS: I think that if I was going to say anything to this particular crowd —- there’s a lot of people in media here, and first of all thanks for taking the time to listen to us squabble. And second of all, let’s get some stories out there about the people who are doing it, not because they’re women, not because they need it, but because they’re awesome. And hopefully we can inspire a whole new generation of women after this one to come and kick some ass.
CYAN: I think we should focus on being good parents. I got into computer programming because I learned Logo when I was 8. And so I think that if we expose children, both boys and girls, to computer programming at an early age, you’re actually going to start seeing more and more women and men interested in technology.
LAUREN: Next year I hope TechCrunch Disrupt names this panel something more specific like “Solutions that are working to get more younger girls into tech.”
RACHEL: To Leila’s point, 4 of the 8 Millenium Development goals for the UN are integrally related to Millenium Development goal number 3, which is gender parity and female empowerment. And I firmly believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. And just for the record, I love dudes. Dudes are our allies.
SARAH: And I guess my final word would be —- I haven’t talked to Tim Armstrong, he flew back. So I don’t know if in the AOL world, I still have a job at TechCrunch. But if anybody else is out there, please don’t hire me because I’m a woman.
VIDEO: Women in Tech panel, TechCrunch Disrupt, San Francisco 2010.
This post was originally published at Mediaite.
About the guest blogger: Rachel Sklar is the Editor-at-Large for Mediaite, a site about media and its overlap with politics, tech, business, sports and pop culture. She is the former Senior Contributing Editor for the Huffington Post and was the founding editor of the site’s Eat The Press page. She has contributed to the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Daily Beast, Glamour, New York Magazine, and the Financial Times, and is a frequent guest on networks including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.