What we really need to do to encourage more women to found and fund companies.
By Betsy Mikel (Editor, Women 2.0)
Hey, have you heard? Tech’s gender gap is huge. Compared to men, the number of women who start companies, get funded or invest is measly. In the single digits, some say.
Yep, tech’s got a gender problem. This isn’t news to us. Our community has been working in tech and Silicon Valley long before there was a nugget of an idea to write an HBO script about it. We’ve seen it all, heard it all. All this time, we’ve been here, developing, product managing, entrepreneuring, investing and innovating.
For just about as long, Christine Tsai, founding partner of 500 Startups, has been doing the same. Before she and Dave McClure joined forces to launch the seed fund accelerator in 2010, she was the lead for Google I/O. And before that, she led product marketing for YouTube APIs and YouTube for mobile. She’s also long been a supporter of Women 2.0, serving as a judge for our PITCH competition for early-stage startups and authoring posts on our blog such as Life Is Not Fair and 8 Things You Must Do to Support Pregnant Startup Employees.
With so much experience in the field, we thought Christine might have great insights about what actually gets us closer to 50/50 — and what common misconceptions might be roadblocks to achieving gender equality in tech.
Myth #1: Bringing More Attention to the Gender Gap Will Help Close It
The conversation surrounding tech’s gender gap has grown louder than ever. With high-profile cases like Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins and female in tech activist Vivek Wadhwa publicly “stepping out of the debate on women in technology” because of enormous backlash, it’s become a hot button issue that everyone seems to be talking about.
But Christine doesn’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. She notices the press tends to skew negative because drama engages people. But it doesn’t solve the problem. “As a woman, no matter what age your are or where you are in your life, how is that going to encourage you to join? No woman is going to go sign up for that,” she said. Christine believes drawing so much attention to these low numbers discourages women and continues to stigmatize women in tech.
“It’s not a productive conversation. What would help would be to highlight women in tech, women who are running companies, women who are investors. It doesn’t always have to be a “women in tech who are doing great” focus. We should seek out women and include them not just in “women” pieces, but on ones that focus on merit instead of gender.”
Myth #2: Funding Women is About Charity
With so much focus on funding women, there’s a misconception that VCs who fund female founders are giving handouts — when really, there are simply plenty of great companies run by women.
“I wouldn’t want to fund a company that I didn’t really believe in JUST BECAUSE the founders are women,” Christine says. “That does women a disservice. But when the companies are great, and the teams are great, and one of them happens to be (for example) pregnant — I don’t bat an eye. It wouldn’t even cross my mind that being pregnant would be an issue because I’ve also been through that experience.”
Christine challenges angels and VCs to look closely at the business, not just the founders. If the founding team doesn’t quite fit the idea of a typical startup, don’t discount the business because they look different.
Investors are oftentimes used to seeing (and funding) founders who are white males, younger white males, even just men. “If it’s a woman — or worse an all-woman founder team (I say that jokingly) — for some investors, that’s hard to swallow,” Christine says. “Some don’t even realize they have that bias.” Don’t overlook a great business and a great team because it’s not matching what a business should look like.
Myth #3: It’s up to Men to Fix This Problem
Male VCs should fund more women, right? Men have to change. Which, yes, they do. But women have a powerful role to play, too. “I actually think the way to fix this is to have more women investing, too,” Christine says. “Let’s get more women on the other side of the table.”
“The dynamics is all too often male investor, female founder,” she says. “Having more women writing checks will help. A lot of that can be done with women making more decisions with their own capital.”
If you’re unhappy with the lack of female founders getting funding and you’re in a position to invest? Then do it. Angel investing is a great start.
“I don’t think there’s a question that there are women who can do it from a financial perspective, at least in Silicon Valley. You don’t need the net worth of Elon Musk to invest. If you’re working at Google or Facebook and have been there for a few years and you’re not scraping for cash, think about how you could best spend an extra $5,000-10,000.”
Christine also challenges female investors — both angels and VCs — to put themselves out there more. Seek out speaking engagements. Blog. Be visible. Go after the press. “It may not be everybody’s cause. They aren’t intending to be the spokesperson to be a woman in tech. Remember, it’s not just for yourself, but it’s also for others to have a seat at the table. What will encourage women will be to see more women like themselves.”
Myth #4: Asking Women “How They Do it All” Advances the Cause
While Christine believes it’s important for women to see successful VCs and founders who are moms, there’s a downside to putting too much focus on how women manage to parent and work at the same time. Christine constantly gets asked how she does it all. When she was pregnant, people asked her how she would handle coming back to work. Or if she even was going to come back. Her husband didn’t get any of those questions.
“Just asking the question puts unnecessary pressure on women to have to ‘do it all,’ whatever that means,” she says.
Christine’s not saying we should completely avoid talking about parenting at all. “If women who have kids are talking about it, that does help open up the conversation. But it’s nice to also focus on these women as founders, CEOs and investors.” It’s okay to talk about it, but don’t make that the focal point of the conversation, Christine advises.
Myth #5: The Solution is Better Maternity Leave Policies
Parenting skews towards moms, especially when kids are younger. Still, it’s up to companies to emphasize that dads are parents, too. Offering women maternity leave policies is important and a good start. Can your company provide equal or close to equal benefits to moms and dads? That’s an even.
“It’s telling when maternity leave is great and dads have nothing or they only have two weeks. I was impressed when Facebook announced equal leave for men and women with kids,” Christine says. “That’s a great example.”
We’re right behind Christine. Let’s focus on the positive, not the negative. Let’s celebrate talented and successful female founders because they’re amazing people, not just because they’re women. Let’s keep working towards gender equality by kicking ass, not by complaining that inequality exists.