On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Shira Ovide, one of its media reporters, about the lack of women in the leadership among tech companies and talked about the protests over the separately branded TEDWomen conference that was announced last month. Short version: There are too few women in tech.
Only about 11% of U.S. firms with venture-capital backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or female founders, according to data from Dow Jones VentureSource. The prestigious start-up incubator Y Combinator has had just 14 female founders among the 208 firms it has funded.
Then, a response came from Michael Arrington in TechCrunch.
I could, like others (see all the links in that Fred Wilson post too), write pandering but meaningless posts agonizing over the problem and suggesting creative ways that we (men) could do more to help women. I could point out that the CEO of TechCrunch is a woman, as are two of our four senior editors (I’m one of the four). And how we seek out women focused events and startups and cover them to death.
But I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to tell it like it is. And what it is is this: statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs, because the press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them. Just so no one will point the accusing finger of discrimination at them.
Arrington is filled with some Real Talk: It’s not the men that are to blame for so few women in technology fields, it’s the women. He’s not going to “pander” to women or “cover [women-focused events] to death.” Sound defensive much?
All too often when discussions of diversity get opened up, it is those who benefit the most from current structures (usually white men from upper middle class backgrounds) demand they not be blamed for the lack of diversity. They’ve worked a lot to remedy the problem. But they give up! There’s nothing more they can do.
I recognize this is a well-intentioned approach, but it also comes from a perspective that is largely blind to greater forces at work. As the amazing Jamelle Bouie over at The American Prospect writes, “It’s less that there is a dearth of entrepreneurial talent among women, and more that women are socialized away from math and science at an early age.”
He’s right: Even though two-thirds of both boys and girls say they like science, the numbers of women who earn degrees in the traditional STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) drops sharply as they get older, according to a sociological study [PDF] Kristine De Welde, Sandra Laursen, and Heather Thiry. Though women earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences (sometimes referred to as “soft STEM“), women make up far less than half in physics, math and statistics, computer science, astronomy, and all forms of engineering. One notable exception is chemistry, where women earn roughly half of all chemistry bachelor’s degrees.
It’s true that the numbers, especially of degree-seekers, has improved in the last few decades, but still “men outnumber women (73% vs. 27% overall) in all sectors of employment for science and engineering.” Furthermore, when you get into high levels of academia, women seem to disappear, “At higher levels of STEM education, the percentage of women continues to decline; this is the so-called “leaky pipeline.” For example, though women earn nearly half of mathematics bachelors’ degrees, they earn only 27% of doctoral degrees.”
There are also other pressures at work: Women aren’t often found in leadership positions, often because women are socialized away from taking on leadership roles. I can’t tell you how many talented women I’ve talked to who have told me something along the lines of, “I want to do more behind-the-scenes kind of stuff.” The White House Project recently released a report on women’s leadership [PDF] to coincide withe the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment last week. They found that across all industries, despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of Americans said they were comfortable with women leaders, “today women account for only 18 percent of our top leaders.” This was true across all industries, “from academia and business to media and the military.” There’s little doubt that there’s a dirth of women’s leadership generally, not just among the tech industry.
Arrington’s not wrong that when you want to highlight women’s leadership — especially in the tech industry — those who want to diversify how it looks can quickly become frustrated. It is true that there just aren’t that many women. But just noting that tells only part of the story. Even from my own experience, I can how women are discouraged from science and math. I took advanced math classes each year and excelled at them. But when my 9th grade geometry teacher suggested I pursue a career in math, I didn’t even consider it. Somewhere I got the message that girls don’t do math. Those messages are sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle.
Getting more women into fields science, math, and technology is going to take time and a lot of work. Those numbers are slowly improving. This might be, in part, thanks to an increase in awareness of girl geek culture. Other sites like Skepchick and Geek Feminism try to support and encourage women in non-traditional industries like math, science, engineering, and technology. Rachel Sklar, of Mediaite, co-founded a group called “Change the Ratio” that seeks to encourage women to make their presence felt at tech events. These are just some of the ways tech women are working to support other tech women.
The important thing here to remember is that pointing out the lack of diversity in a field isn’t an attack on those white men — even if they feel that way. Men may have benefited from the structures to deter women from tech fields, but that then means they’re in a good position to also help change that culture. Creating more diversity isn’t a zero-sum game, even if some people view it as such. I understand Arrington’s frustrations, but he’s not the only one who’s frustrated. Plenty of women are, too. They just want to do something about it.
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