We Need More Female IT Leaders

Vivek Wadhwa has a strong article in BusinessWeek today titled Addressing the Dearth of Female EntrepreneursHe makes the argument that “There are too few women running high-tech companies; that’s too bad, considering evidence shows female-led businesses outperform those run by men” and concludes “[I] hope that when I revisit this topic in subsequent years the percentage of women launching IT companies rivals the percentage of women going into law, medicine, and higher education. The outcome would benefit us all.”

Vivek worked with the National Center for Women & Information Technology – an organization that I’ve been chairman of for five years – to analyze data on the background and motivations of 549 successful entrepreneurs that he had previously published research on in the article Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and MotivationOnly 8% of the sample was female and there were some very interesting conclusions from it that Vivek summarizes in his BusinessWeek article.

The fundamental assertion that Vivek makes – that the dearth of female entrepreneurs is a societal issue – is consistent with the ideas I’ve developed around this over the past five years of my involvement with NCWIT.  My assertion around the importance of this issue is simple – in the US we need more women involved in computer science, IT, and entrepreneurship to maintain our country’s long term leadership position in innovation.

When I sit in a room, like I did last night at the Colorado Open Angel Forum (which was spectacular), and see only one woman out of about 30 people, this issue is just reinforced.  It’s not that the event wasn’t open to women, or that we filtered against women, it was just that very few applied.  As we like to say at NCWIT, “it’s a pipeline issue.”  As a society and a country we’ve got to start working today to get more women into the pipeline for 20 years from now.

While there will always be people who say this is a gender equality issue (and come out either for or against this dynamic as a result), I think they are missing the real issue.  This is about innovation, competitiveness, and entrepreneurship. I’m glad Vivek highlights this issue and am especially proud of all the work that NCWIT is doing.

  • Brad, I agree with you. Somehow, I find myself on the middle of this discussion more often than not here in Seattle.

    I think one of the key problems (not the root of the problem) is the lack of high-profile stories of successful women creating tech companies. Think about Larry, Sergei, Mark 1 & Mark 2, Pierre, Jerry, etc. Imagine how inspiring they were for people of their gender, race, university, country, religion, etc.

    But again, the root cause is where we should focus energy, and I have no clue what is causing it.

  • Brad, I think a large part of the problem is pretty easy to understand. My wife and I both work at different startups; last night we were both at work pretty late. She didn't finish up until around 10:30; I got done an hour or so before her but kept working for a while. We don't have kids, but this lifestyle is not going to be possible when we do. Our highest performing women tend to marry high performing men (in my case I got lucky with my wife…). Since the burden of taking care of kids tends to fall on the woman, and since our best and brightest women are marrying men who have similar hard working lifestyles, something has to give. And it is usually the women's careers.

    There has got to be a business model taking top tier women with kids and getting them back into the workforce part time. That may be my next startup, but I'd be happy if someone else beat me to it.

  • NCWIT has done a great Interview program with a number of women entrepreneurs.  Take a look at http://www.ncwit.org/resources.res.interview.php and tell me what you think.

  • Thanks for posting this article. It may or may not be a gender equality issue but the thinking behind this has to change. There is a schism between the way men are viewed in this field and the way women are viewed. Women have to work twice as hard to be taken as seriously as men in the tech field. As the sole woman developer in one company I was once employed at, I was constantly told that they didn't have time to implement my ideas. Or they were immediately shot down by my male counterparts. Yet, these ideas somehow found a way to be part of the company cultural when it was brought up months later by a male. That may be open to interpretation as to why that happened, it is suspect and the implication there is that gender played a role.

    I'm not trying to male bash; I think to improve this issue we have to work together. But the mentality has got to change. Women are portrayed as these sexy geeks and are seen as sexual objects, rather than for their prowess on the computer. Check out the Geek Feminism blog to see what we're talking about (http://geekfeminism.org/). We all need to challenge the stereotypes we've grown up with.

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  • lucy

    This is indeed an issue, backed up by research ……. NCWIT is working on some novel onramp programs for women who have left the IT workforce through its Pacesetters Program – there are some great companies involved with Pacesetters – Microsoft, Pfizer, Qualcomm, Intel, Google, IBM, AT&T and Boehringer Ingelheim ……. so we are hopeful these types of programs will soon become a reality.

  • That's really awesome. Good luck with it – I think you'll positively impact a lot of people and a lot of companies if you can find a model that works.

  • See Claudia Batten's Interview re: her start up Victors & Spoils. Via Twitter: Claudia Batten Ad Industry Innovator # 23: Victors&Spoils http://bit.ly/ckJSvz via @AddToAny

  • Thanks for posting the link to the article, though I tend to agree with Lucy on this issue. Having worked for and with a number of start-ups and early stage tech companies, I will say that the environment tends to be male-oriented (and by that, I do not mean sexist) I mean the culture is a very male culture, so if there are only a few women, it becomes an environment that is unappealing for women to stay in. (How many women do you know who are thrilled with hanging out in a frat house or locker room environment 50 hours a week or more?) It also means that women's opinions are not heard because we're peripheral and outside the existing culture of the organization.

    Part of the problem (IMHO) is also that women haven't learned to stand up for what they want/deserve, because, at least here in the US, we are raised to be caretakers. Women don't ask for the money they deserve and don't expect to have the authority to do their jobs as they see fit. To me, this is a cultural issue, and would be helped if more women were part of the initial start-up team – they don't necessarily have to be the vision person, but bring them on board early so that the culture of the organization develops differently.

  • dude from the valley

    There are lot of women engineers, unfortunately they are not white Americans – they are mostly immigrant Chinese and Indian. They are tend to be conservative and inconspicuous among vociferous loud voices.

  • Loving the comments here, and totally agree with you Robin. The culture thing is a real bugbear of mine. I don't drink beer or work till 4am, (I'm an early bird and sleep five hours from midnight) but I refuse to join any group that is called "Girls….anything." I will also not belong to a group that talks about "tiaras" or "princesses." So where does that leave me?

  • As the lone woman in the room last night, not an uncommon occurrence having spent much of my career working in entrepreneurial businesses and other male dominated industries, I also was wondering how to draw more women into the mix. Personally I've rarely felt marginalized or hindered in any way by the men I've worked with but that doesn't mean it's not happening. Perhaps its our job as women to reach out to other women, especially younger ones before they've decided which path to take.

  • Lura

    Healy, I couldn't agree with you more. I quit a job as an engineer when the kids were in elementary school because it was way easier to work when they were in preschool than when they entered the public schools with all of the holidays. My husband was working in start-ups, and just wasn't around as much to help. I would have loved it if I could have gotten into something more part time, but even then the kids still get sick, forget their lunches, and have after school sports. Unfortunately, it's the women who end up choosing between a career and kids, or trying to balance both.

  • Lura

    I'm with you, Anke. As a female engineer, I never felt marginalized or hindered or as if my opinion didn't matter, but I do tend to be fairly outspoken 🙂 Organizations such as NCWIT and the Society of Women Engineers are doing an outstanding job reaching out to girls at the middle school age. My daughter who is now 13, and set on majoring in Fashion Design, will be attending a Women's Engineering Day at CU in a couple of weeks. She was interested to hear that women in technical fields make more money than most. Maybe more events like this could sway her, and one day she could end up being a female engineer with great fashion sense.

  • Hey Brad, good point here, and the comments agree there is obviously a problem. I'm interested as to what the solution is in your mind though? There's a lot of great initiatives to support women who find themselves in tech I think, but honestly I'm not in tech because of a great male keynote I saw. I'm where I am today because of my interest in tinkering and video games as a youth. I think this will remain a problem until technology reaches out to young women and captivates their creative process and directs to technology initiatives.

    I suppose facebook/social networking will help this to some degree (social media specialist is a title I see many woman holding because of their attention to detail and ability to tell story),

    Regardless, revering women in technology isn't bad at all, but it's not going to help the problem you highlight here imo.

  • Thank you, Brad, for opening up this issue as it can be difficult to discuss. As a 60 something woman as CEO of a start-up I get a very interesting perspective so I have lots of points. In my early carrer as an applied artist and self employed family (2 children) did come first . Now it is my semi-retired husband who is very supportive otherwise a difficult job would be more difficult.

    I think that it is the more fundamental business culture that needs to change to embrace and support a greater diversity of ways of thinking and doing. I agree with Robin and Nikki that this culture is still dominated by a male mind set that does NOT understand that woman do have a different ways of thinking, interacting, organising and doing (see http://bit.ly/9gAAeG for a link to an excellent report titled 'Sex on the brain' by Femme Den). This request for rethinking is particularly applicable to investors as some of the would be woman entrepreneurs I speak to prefer different business models to those most acceptable to Investors ! And one of the main differences for me particularly, Brad, is that I prefer collaboration above competitiveness.

  • Diversity in general (be it gender or race) is something that I believe is important to the long-term health, richness and prosperity of a community. Last night I attended an event for software/internet entrepreneurs in Durham, NC and commented to my wife afterwards that almost everyone there was a white man in their late 20's to late 30's.

    There were two women there and both were involved with administration of the event. Otherwise, there were approximately two Asian men, two African-American men, and two Indian men in attendance. Reflecting back on my time at a VC fund-of-funds, those ratios were probably more or less consistent with most annual meetings, conferences and other industry events I attended.

    I'm sure many folks have thought about why this seems to be the case a lot longer and harder than I have, but I definitely agree that it's something that should be changed, and would like to get involved in being part of the solution. If anyone knows of a good organization to get involved with, please contact me.

  • Stevelev

    I have heard from women 2 stories. The first is that current companies do not value women enough to even have a women's bathroom on the floor.
    Second there is not enough encouragement of women and part time opportunities so those who wish to work part-time will.
    There are many causes (traditions, religion, skills, resources, opportunities) that can be overcome. In America we need to let go of habits requiring time and limit success (TV, scheduling, kids sports, poorly organized tasks of household maintenance).

    **** Children (especially girls) need more time than they are getting but much of that time can serve a purpose.****

    Cleaning, laundry, cooking, gardening, home repairs, and watching parents work (build a website, repair cars, etc) are good examples. I grew up keeping grounds at a country club(afternoons). A friend spent afternoons helping his dad with a parts business, another stocked candy in the family pharmacy. LIke my friends I did not continue in that business but the skills I learned were unreplaceable. I provided a service and my community was better for it. Unfortunately, government involvement(regulation, litigation, etc) has sucked the life out of these once home owned businesses(Govt involvement = failure).
    Catering to kids in sports clubs (soccer, baseball, football, etc…) can suck over 25 hours a week out of parent's schedule. Much of that time is spent driving, idol talk, cheap entertainment(emailing funny video', surfing web etc.). This is not time well spent and it often develops spoiled children. Children need more life skills and common sense. Sports are very valuable (played Tennis through out my education) but spent focused quality on my skills and play but did not let it rule my schedule.

    I see several couple's who make smarter choices do achieve this goal. We need to get gov't out of businesses and children more involved.

  • Lucy

    Great comments – obviously an important conversation. Many of these barriers are rooted in organizational culture. Marie Wilson, CEO of the White House Project, says what we really need is to make it "normal" for women to be involved, and that takes about 30% participation …….. true as well for men who want to be nurses or flight attendants, btw. It's an organizational pitfall for organizations that have too large of a majority population. In our case, technology, the majority population is largely white male. If there is only one woman in a technology organization, she can often suffer from stereotyping; if there are two women, they will often get compared to one another; if we can get to higher participation, then having women involved in technical innovation will be considered "normal" and we can stop talking about gender and start talking about utilizing our collective technical skills to invent cool technology the world needs.

  • I’m chairman of National Center for Women & Information Technology (http://www.ncwit.org) and would love to have you involved.  Just drop me an email.

  • MDW

    Where have all the female engineers gone? I graduated from CU in CS in 1984. My guess in that almost one third of the class was female. Where did they go?

  • Re: “revering women in technology” – that’s only one small part of what NCWIT does.  One of the common issues is “not enough role models” and this particular set of interviews addresses that.  That said, take a look at http://www.ncwit.org to see the variety of other things they are doing to address the issue.

  • Great comments all. I've waffled for a long time on whether to respond as this really hits a nerve.

    As a female engineering executive in a male dominated world, I've had to be very creative in my efforts to thrive in a male oriented culture. I've had to perform stupendously, and establish a track record no one can ignore, just to stay minimally relevant. I've had to respond to remarks like "All important decisions get made in the men's room". I've had to drink way more beer than I like. I must play with the boys while being careful not to appear man-like in my demeanor. My husband and I constantly run into scheduling conflicts regarding childcare duties.

    My male counterparts appear to have fewer challenges. They shine in their jobs and the rest takes care of itself. Not so for female professionals. The world is not a meritocracy. Let's face it – it stinks to be female in lots of organizations.

    I am at peace with my choices. I play the card I am dealt and I am ok with the high personal cost. Lots of my friends chose a different path. Until the personal cost becomes a bit less lopsided, I don't honestly see the situation changing.

  • There is a limit of the length of posting a comment, due to the interaction between the browser and IntenseDebate, so I am posting my comment via multiple entries.

    Vivek Wadhwa: “There are too few women running high-tech companies; that’s too bad, considering evidence shows female-led businesses outperform those run by men”

    Vivek needs to learn about biased samples. There is a bell curve in talent among entrepreneurs, the way there is a bell curve in almost everything else. Some people are simply better at starting companies than others. Being an entrepreneur requires, among other things, having balls, the courage to take risks and possibly (make that most likely) fail. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs are successful in large part because they have more courage. A lot of Donald Trump’s success is that he has bigger balls than just about anyone else. If only a few women are starting technology companies, the ones who are are most likely the outliers. Thus, we are looking at a few women who are on the far right tail and then comparing them with the average male entrepreneur, half of whom are below the median in terms of talent. Comparing one group who is on the far right tail with the another group which is average is a ridiculous comparison.

    And this assumes his statement is true. If you consider the most talked about success stories — Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc. — I don't see a lot of women among the founding members. If you go one level down, or two levels down, again I don't see a lot of women.

  • He further adds: “[I] hope that when I revisit this topic in subsequent years the percentage of women launching IT companies rivals the percentage of women going into law, medicine, and higher education." Women are about half, or slightly more than half, of those entering law and medical schools. If you expect half of technology entrepreneurs to be female, I have a bridge you may want to buy. Get realistic.

    "The outcome would benefit us all.” This is true if you assume women are as good at starting companies as men are. If they are not, this would not benefit us, it would just lead to a lot of failed companies.

    People who are successful tech entrepreneurs, in general, are really good, and very passionate about, technology. What is remarkable about technology businesses is that the CEOs, on the whole, know a whole lot about technology. When non-tech CEOs take over tech companies, in most cases the results have been disappointing. Think Jim Manzi of Lotus and James Barkesdale of Netscape, both of whom took successful companies and ran them into the ground.

    What needs to happen is that women have to become a whole lot more interested in technology, particularly computers. And so far, that is not happening. The main problem is in junior high school and high school. In most schools, the message is "Look pretty, look hot, become a cheerleader. That will make you popular with the boys." Girls who are good at computers are not going to get a lot of dates. Someone the culture has to change; single sex education at the secondary level could be an answer.

  • Every gifted hacked I have met is totally absorbed with computers and programming; they think about them in the shower. We know that the top 2 or 3 percent of hackers out produce the remaining 97 or 98 percent. I do not know any women who are totally absorbed with computers, and without that level of intensity, you will not be a gifted hacker. Given that technology businesses are often “winner take all” races/markets, if you don’t have gifted hackers, the game is pretty much over before you start. (Gifted hackers are not sufficient to make a technology company successful, but they are usually necessary.) Given that a large percentage of founders are either technical developers or executives with strong technical backgrounds, you are far more likely to have men starting technology companies than women.

    If you can get a substantial number of women interested in computers, I will be impressed. I don’t know how to make that happen. I run a social group and on my list are eight women who (i) are summas from top schools (Wellesley College, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton) and (ii) majored in economics or math and economics. These women are at the top of the intellectual food chain. All use computers in their jobs. None of them has any inherent interest in them, they just use them because they are useful. They do not think about them in the shower. They clearly are smart enough to be gifted at them, but they choose not to. Admittedly it’s a small sample size but I would be willing to bet that a larger sample would produce similar results.

    Some might suggest something like, “Any female with an IQ greater than 120 will not be permitted to major in sociology or literature or classics. She must instead major in math, statistics, physics, engineering, or another intellectually rigorous discipline.” I would not be opposed to that. But in addition to the training, you need the passion. How to get women passionate about computers? I do not know. Sure, some of those forced to study them will become interested, but probably not a lot. In general, assuming they do not come from a poor background, those who are interested in computers gravitate towards them. At least in 2010, the typical gifted hacker got interested in programming in junior high school or high school at the latest.

  • Role models are obviously extremely important. A whole lot of people have started companies because they knew someone else who did. One small thing that could help just a bit. If you have an engineering school with a meaningful number of women CS majors, I think it would be great to have a weekly seminar, open only to the women. Each week there is a different women speaker — CS professors (from that school and others), women in the industry, women VCs. Over 30 weeks they would meet 30 different role models. Have the seminar be for credit, thus giving the women students an easy way to get course credit, to make up for the ridiculous number of hours most CS courses require.

    Women have different attitudes toward risk. I know a ton of women who are married to husbands who are extremely successful financially. The couple can live on the husband's salary and have hundreds of thousands of dollars left over. These women have nothing to lose. If they start a business and it does not work out, they still can afford the three cars, the second home, the private school tuition. Yet none of them have started a business.

    As for technology executives, one must differentiate. I went to a Girls in Tech networking event. Most of the people attending were women, but almost all of them in PR, were social media consultants, or were in HR. Those are all important fields but that is not the same thing as being Chief Technology Officer!

  • This is a long term problem. One needs to be realistic about one’s goals. Several years ago, an open source leader said, “The goal is not five years from now for Linux to be 50 percent of the desktop market. The goal is to increase market share from 1 percent to 2 percent.” Any goal such as “20 years from now, half of technology executives are women” is simply silly and counter-productive.

    James Mitchell

  • Lucy

    I was surprised too – women's participation was at an all time high in the early '80s and has been declining since. Shocking, isn't it?

  • Lucy

    I think most parents make the best choices they can concerning how they raise their children, and there are so many factors. So, I can't really comment on most of these observations. My husband is a computer scientist, as am I, and I do know that having both parents share equally in parenting and housekeeping really helps both parents have meaningful careers. And, it also shows children that both parents can have careers they love, an important lesson I think. I know our sons really learned different life and work lessons from both of us.

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  • Hi Brad. Coincidence that I came across this today. Last night, a group of us were voting on the recipient of the @ScalesWell grant, and there was (I believe) a single woman applicant. I can't speak for the others, but I know @harper and I felt strongly about this. I'm aware there are a few ongoing "female entrepreneur" movements in Chicago, but I was wondering either if you recommend any one local organization in particular, or if there is some possible relationship we can develop with NCWIT, locally.


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  • I’ll connect you up with Lucy Sanders at NCWIT to see if there’s a way to collaborate.

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  • Brad,
    I am very happy to hear and see more of us men talk about this issue. It is not only important, because we want our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and other women succeed, but it is also important, because we are missing out on great talent in our midst.

    Last November I wrote an article "Time to end the frat house culture! We need more women in our midst." http://leanstartups.com/time-to-end-the-frat-hous
    It is still one of the most popular articles on my blog.

    Some of the key points I make there:
    * The biggest issue is when female executives, entrepreneurs, techies, and scientists have to waste mental energy dealing with the crap caused by misogynistic behavior. Men consciously and/or subconsciously create barriers and discourage women from joining their teams.
    * Child rearing is the responsibility of both parents.
    * Any educator who dares to say women aren’t good at sciences or technology should be fired.
    * We need help from legislation (just like what some Scandinavian and other countries have done with good results)
    * 99.99% of “diversity” efforts HR creates are BS because the vast majority of these policies are garbage just designed to keep the lawyers away.

    Again, great to see another well known person trumpet for the cause!

  • Lara Druyan

    Brad, one of your questions seems to be, "why weren't there more women presenting" at the angel forum. Women tend to edit themselves out a priori. (Note how few women have opined on this and related posts!) When I was in business school, the admissions officers told me that the quality of the female applicant pool was objectively "higher" than the male applicant pool for the reason I cited. Having role models, as some people have averred, is indeed critical if we are to see more women entrepreneurs, CEOs, angel investors and/or VCs. The biggest question to me is how do we get more role models? Interestingly, no one here mentioned Diane Greene as being a great role model, yet she pioneered a new field: virtualization!

  • Yup – Dianne Green is a great example!

    • I am a woman and an entrepreneur based in India! I am running an outsourcing firm to provide software testing and development services to start-ups and mid -sized companies in hi-tech, mostly securtity and i have not come across another woman here in this space..I was in the Bay Area and then moved back to India and I feel culture also plays a big role in why there are so few women out there in IT as entrepreneurs..I could end up with writing one big article on this!!

  • thanks bro

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