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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing – Applications Are Open

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Last week I was called out on a blog titled Stop Squawking; Embody The Change. In it, Nilofer Merchant (the writer) asserts that while my writing about the lack women in tech / entrepreneurship / computer science is useful, it doesn’t have much impact. Nilofer says:

“Those posts are all “Yeahness”; maybe they are helping educate the few people on this earth who haven’t read the research, statistics that says that diversity of opinions improves the performance of any workgroup. Perhaps they counteract the “women just want to have babies” or “women don’t take risks” posts out there.”

She goes on to make a call to action for me and a few others, saying:

“If Mark, or Fred, or Brad wanted to actually see things change, they have to be willing to be changed. They have to have their networks changed. They cannot stay in their current circles, talking to the same people they already talk with, and then imagine they will run into more women to invest in. They cannot expect things to change by asking “boy, I wish things would change”. That’s a gesture. A politically correct gesture, sure, and maybe it gives the warm fuzzies, but accomplishes little else. It is certainly not embodying the necessary change. To move from impossible and unattainable to possible and attainable is more than chopping off a few letters. It means we need to embody the change.”

I agree strongly with Nilofer that we need to embody the change. Since I don’t agree that all I do is write about the issue, I left a comment with a few examples of the things that I actually do, rather than just write about, to address this issue.

One of the things I do is chair the board of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.  It is well documented that there is a significant gender imbalance in IT. Only 18% of computer and information science degrees were awarded to women in 2009 (11% at major research universities), though 57% of college degrees are awarded to women (source: NCWIT By the Numbers 2009.) One of the things I’m especially proud of is the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing.

The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is designed to reverse this trend by identifying, recognizing and supporting young women interested in and aspiring to pursue a major in computing. It was created in 2007 and has grown to a combined National and Affiliate program with local awards serving 22 states in 2011. To date NCWIT has recognized 855 young women and plans to grow the award program to a reach of 10,000 young women and recognize 1,000 award recipients annually. I wrote about my experience attending the 2010 awards and spending time with the winners, including the college scholarship that Amy and I decided to give each winner in the spur of the moment.

The NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing is much more than an award program. Recipients are provided long-term support for their interests in computing through peer networking, mentorship, scholarships and access to opportunities. Applications are now open to any high school young women residing in the US. Please encourage all the young women you know to apply before the end of October.

LEGO, Sexism, and Stereotype Threat

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I love LEGOs. So, when I saw the page yesterday of the new LEGO Minifigures (sent to me by Lucy Sanders, the CEO of National Center for Women & Information Technology) I threw up a little in my mouth.

Like me, Lucy is a LEGO enthusiast, but she was not happy to see how women (or minorities) were represented in the LEGO Minifigures sets. Sure, there is a female snowboarder, a female tennis player, and a lifeguard, but the rest of the female Minifigures are a hula dancer, pop star, cheerleader, witch, and nurse. And that’s it. While I have nothing against nurses, entertainers, or athletes, these mini-figures are perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes about both women and men.

At NCWIT (where I am the Chair of the board) we’re grappling with the problem of how to attract, retain, and promote girls and women in technical education paths and careers. Many K-12 teachers who want to introduce their students (girls and boys) to computing and engineering use LEGO products like Mindstorms and Technics and LEGO energetically markets their products for this purpose. That’s a good thing.

However the ridiculous Minifigures perpetuate standardized, simplified, and damaging conceptions of acceptable pursuits for women. Such perceptions have contributed to keeping women away from many types of jobs, including computing. These are not harmless toys – they are sending messages to girls and boys about where they belong on a daily basis. If you doubt the serious impact of this exposure, I encourage you to learn more about stereotype threat, especially the work of Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.

At NCWIT we’re working hard to make computing, technology, and business more inclusive. C’mon, LEGO. Your products are a great avenue for educating our young people, but your Minifigures are stuck in the past. Get rid of them.

Return Path Joins The NCWIT Workforce Alliance

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My long time friend Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, wrote a blog post today titled A New Kind of Partnership for Return Path. In it he talks about his recognition, as Return Path has grown (they are now around 250 people), of the gender imbalance in the software engineering team (women are around 15% of total engineering team.. He knew about NCWIT from my role as chairman and Matt and his team decided to join the NCWIT Workforce Alliance to engage in helping address this issue.

Matt and his team then did something that blew me away. They provided the sponsorship of the first-ever NCWIT/Return Path Student Seed Fund. This will program will provide seed funding to groups of technical women at universities across the US to advance the goals of women in computing. There are so many things about this that are exciting to me, including the focus on students, seed funding, and the linkage to NCWIT’s overall goal.

We’ve got a huge NCWIT announcement coming in a few days that Return Path is also involved in as one of the founding members. I’ll post more about it, why it’s so important to me, who’s involved, and what you can do to engage – probably over the weekend.

Return Path – thank you!

More Women In Tech Discussions

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The blogo-twitter-sphere erupted this weekend in response to an article in the WSJ on Friday titled Addressing The Lack Of Women Leading Tech Start-ups. I missed most of it as I was pretty heads down this weekend going through the final page proofs of the upcoming book “Do More Faster.”

TechCrunch / Arrington wrote a post Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men. Fred Wilson followed with Women In Tech and Women Entrepreneurs Discussion. My partner Jason Mendelson did a video interview on the subject with EZebis.

Lots of controversy but lots of useful discussion.  Which is good.

The Discussion About The Lack of Women In Tech

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The meme of the lack of women in tech (or software, or entrepreneurship) appeared in several places today.  Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been the chairman of the National Center for Women & Information Technology for a number of years and deeply involved in this issue. It’s very satisfying for me to see a meme like this pick up speed and appear in a bunch of thoughtful articles and discussions. If you are interested in this issue, I have three articles from the last 24 hours that I encourage you to read.

Let’s start with a high level discussion in the San Jose Mercury News article titled Startup boot camp illustrates dearth of women in tech. The article does a nice job of framing the issue and the last few paragraphs bring up the idea that the “paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  A similar concept is that parents of young girls (junior high / high school) discourage (or “don’t encourage”) their daughters from exploring computer science.

Next is a chewy blog post by Eric Ries titled Why diversity matters (the meritocracy business).  Eric tackles a bunch of concepts around diversity with a focus on gender diversity (although a lot of the constructs are applicable to ethnic and racial diversity.)  The comments to this post contain some good additional refinements to the discussion. In reading through the comments, I find it interesting to see how loaded the word “diversity” is as some of the commenters seem to confuse “diversity” with “equal numbers of all types” or some kind of specious politically correct construct. Eric also includes a tremendous short presentation by Terri Oda about how biology (doesn’t) explain the low number of women in computer science.

Finally, Fred Wilson’s excellent post titled Some Thoughts On The Seed Fund Phenomenon has a comment thread started by Tereza that talks about an idea she calls XX-Combinator (a seed accelerator for women).

For those that question the lack of data surrounding this area that is driving some of the current thinking, the amount of actual research that NCWIT has either sponsored, co-sponsored, or done over the past five years is substantial.  As with much social science research, there’s a big gap between the core research, the conclusions, and long term behavioral change, but as Lucy Sanders (the CEO of NCWIT) is fond of saying, we are five years into a 20 year shift.

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