For those of us interested in gender parity in the workplace, it was a crazy weekend. On Saturday, a blog on The Wall Street Journal‘s website published a piece about the dearth of women entrepreneurs in tech startups and what various folks are doing to balance the ratio. Then on Sunday, writer Michael Arrington, a senior editor at the technology blog TechCrunch, wrote a somewhat-snippy response called “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” that revealed both his frustration and defensiveness. Arrington’s position? If women aren’t becoming entreprenuers, it’s their own fault. In fact, women may have it easier launching startups, Arrington wrote, because everyone is so aware of the gender imbalance that the women may get preferential treatment.Now, I have some insights. Although I’ve never launched a startup myself, in the past five years I have dated two different men running startups, including my current guy. I’ve been to plenty of formal networking events and informal social functions where I’ve been one of a handful of women in the room. (I’m always telling my single girl friends, “You should have been at this happy hour event! There were so many men there!”) I’ve watched how the mostly male groups in the tech world behave. There’s usually a lot of “big d*ck-swinging” and posturing; I am also flirted with on occasion and not necessarily spoken to as an equal. Let me be clear: this doesn’t happen every time or all the time, but it has happened enough.
These aren’t just my observations, however: My boyfriend is attuned to the gender imbalance in his field, as well as the racial imbalance. He is always coming home and telling me, “There was only one woman speaking on the panel and no people of color!” or “There were 30 white guys at the party, but only three women!” Also, because gender equality and gender parity are such big interests of mine, I’ve had numerous discussions with both men and women at tech startups about the reasons for the dearth of women. My boyfriend has had his own conversations about the subject and has shared the gist of them with me.
Therefore right off the bat, I did not agree with Arrington’s lead premise in “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men”:
“Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich.”
Yes, tech startups are certainly merit-driven: either your business makes money or it doesn’t. That’s more meritocratic than, say, journalism or acting, where someone can suck but they’ll still get work because of nepotism or because they’re likable. To a certain extent, I’ll admit he has a point. But nothing is ever just merit-driven. It does matter, unfortunately, how old you are, what sex you are and what color you are.
Arrington continued to say that TechCrunch, when it hosts events, tries to find qualified women to participate. “Every damn time we have a conference we fret over how we can find women to fill speaking slots,” he wrote. Lots of times women say “no” to these invites, however, because the dearth of women in the industry mean they are “literally hounded” with invites. And they won’t just put any woman onstage. “We won’t put women on stage just because they’re women—that’s not fair to the audience who’ve paid thousands of dollars each to be there,” Arrington wrote.
Women in tech startups are actually at a huge advantage, Arrington claimed. “The press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them,” he wrote. He also references a particular startup incubator and notes, “What [the startup incubator] probably won’t admit, but I suspect is true anyway, is that the rate of acceptance for female applicants is far higher than for male applicants.” Arrington ends up getting defensive and closing his piece with this thought: “The next time you women want to start pointing the finger at me when discussing the problem of too few women in tech, just stop.”
I can understand Arrington’s defensiveness, to a point. When I was trying to recruit more female politics bloggers at the Huffington Post (where I used to work), I had many of the same frustrations about how not enough women were stepping up to do it. But are papers dying to write about women entrepreneurs and are venture capitalists dying to fund female startups? I’ve certainly met women who would not agree with Arrington. Besides, if things were really so whiz-bang for women and they have such a “huge advantage,” then why does this problem of the gender imbalance keep persisting?
This “us vs. them” mentality is not helpful because it’s really too simplistic to say, “Well, men are trying to help, so stop blaming us if it doesn’t work!” Really, it’s an easy way out and diversifying entire an industry is too complicated for that kind of behavior. The reasons tech startups are so “pale, male and stale” is a nuanced and complicated discussion—one which I could go on about for pages. It’s institutional, cultural and personal.
The reasons particular fields are male-dominated are also unique unto their own: tech startups will have slightly different reasons than the fields of finance or firefighting. I’ve seen some general (emphasis on the word general) reasons why the gender inequity occurs, which can more or less apply to them all. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of some of the reasons I’ve seen why certain fields get to be male-dominated—not exclusive to tech startups, but inspired by it.
So, if your company, or your entire industry, is a sausagefest, it might be because …
- … girls and young adults are never put on track to be trained physically for the field because it’s seen as “too dangerous” or “not ladylike.”
- … the field is perceived as geeky and uncool by young girls.
- … young girls lack role models in the field.
- … young women lack mentors in the field.
- … parents have discouraged their daughters from going into the field or not supported them enough, either emotionally or financially.
- … women aren’t made to feel welcome in the field because they are seen as too weak to get the job done, or too intimidating, or too threatening.
- … women aren’t aware of the networking events, both formal (like conferences) and informal (like golf outings) because they’re not entrenched in the social group to start with.
- … women show up at networking events, but are are not taken seriously (i.e. instead of asking her thoughts on changes within the industry, she is asked about her shoes).
- … women do show up at networking events, but are treated by the men as potential sexual conquests.
- … women haven’t been hired or promoted because it is assumed they’ll focus more on their kids/family than the business. (True story: I actually heard someone tell my boyfriend he should not hire a young mother because “the baby will always come first.”)
- … there aren’t formal HR departments, so if a woman is sexually harassed by her superiors, she doesn’t feel she has anyone to turn to for help.
- … if a woman dates a man in the same field and they break up, she is not hired or gets excluded from future networking opportunities by male friends who have a “bros before hos” mentality.
- … the person/people in charge of hiring are straight-up misogynists.
- … women who have infiltrated the male-dominated field and and voice feminist opinions about the lack of other women are pigeonholed as castrating ball-busters.
- … women come to the field late and are seen as “too old”/”out of touch” to be able to contribute something, while men are seen as “distinguished” or “experienced.”
- … women who get angry are seen as “crazy emotional bitches,” while men who get angry are just seen as being in charge.
- … women who are confused or need help are seen as incapable, while men who need the same thing are just seen as needing more tutoring and guidance.
- … the majority of the childcare still falls upon the women and therefore she comes to work late, leaves early, and takes time off on school vacations and is perceived by her bosses as not being committed.
I also want to point readers in the direction of this piece, “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Playing The Blame Game.” It’s written by Allyson Kapin, who runs a group called Women In Tech. Even though her “action plan” for getting for women involved are exclusive to the tech field, some of her suggestions can be applicable to other male-dominated fields as well.
On that note, can you think of other possible reasons—cultural, social, personal—why women are excluded from male-dominated fields? Do you have any particular experience/insights yourself? Let us know in the comments.