The ugly side of tech’s gender gap (Wired UK)


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Shortly after Kathryn Tucker started RedRover, an app that
showcases local events for kids, she pitched the idea to an angel
investor at a New York tech event. But it didn’t go over well. When
she finished her pitch, the investor said he didn’t invest in
women.

When she asked why, he told her. “I don’t like the way women
think,” he said. “They haven’t mastered linear thinking.” To prove
his point, he explained that his wife could never prioritise her
to-do lists properly. And then, as if he was trying to compliment
her, he told Tucker she was different. “You’re more male,” he
said.

Tucker didn’t need to hear any more. “I said, ‘Thanks very
much,’ walked out, and never spoke to him again,” she recalled
earlier this year, as part of a panel discussion on “fundraising
while female” at the annual Internet Week conference in New
York.

It was one of many stories shared during a panel that painted
the tech world as a place that — for all its efforts to push into
the future with apps and gadgets and online services — is still
very much stuck in the past when it comes to attitudes involving
gender. Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio, an advocacy
group for women in tech, shared the story of an investor who said
he doesn’t invest in women he doesn’t find attractive. Another gave
women in the audience a tip for pitching VCs: “Wear a wedding
ring.”

As unsettling as they were, these stories only begin to describe
the obstacles facing women in the tech world. We’ve all seen the
numbers. According to a recent report from Pitchbook, only 13 percent of venture-backed
companies had at least one female co-founder. In the software
sector, women-run businesses accounted for just 10 percent of all
venture capital deals. And that’s a drastic improvement.

There are any number of reasons for this. People have argued
that because there are fewer women in computer science, there might
be fewer women pitching these VCs. But research also shows that gender discrimination of varying
degrees — both conscious and subconscious — is alive and well
among tech’s overwhelmingly white, male investors. And the stories
shared by many women — on that Internet Week panel and beyond –
bear this out.

Certainly, not all venture capitalists discriminate against
female founders. Not all female founders feel they’ve been
discriminated against. Not all female founders deserve to be
funded. And yes, there are many stories that will restore your
faith in the industry. “I’ve had only wonderful experiences in
pitching investors,” says Jessica Mah, founder of the accounting
and payroll services startup InDinero. “Most, if not all, have been
very supportive and respectful.”

But there’s another truth to remember: For every story you hear
about investors behaving badly, there are far worse stories that
many women wouldn’t dare to tell. “The most common thing I hear
from other women is: ‘Oh the stories I’ll tell once I’m far enough
along that I don’t have to worry about being shamed,’” says Kathryn
Minshew, co-founder of the job search and career advice site The
Muse.

For women who have experienced this bias — and there are many
— the simple act of talking about it is taboo. There’s a notion
that acknowledging the problem only exacerbates it. No one wants to
be known as the woman who cried sexism for fear of being labeled a
tattletale, a liability, or, at the very least, not worth the
trouble. And yet, it’s only through these stories that we can begin
to understand that the statistics aren’t the result of some fluke
or mass oversight, but a very real problem that needs to be
solved.

‘I’m so relieved. I thought I was the only
one’


Minshew has a few stories of her own. Two months into fundraising
for The Muse, she attended a dinner held by a group of young tech
entrepreneurs. The guest of honour was someone Minshew calls a
“well-known investor and former entrepreneur.” During the dinner,
he approached Minshew, one of the only women at the event, to say
he found her company interesting and wanted to meet later and dig
deeper into the business model.

They swapped cards. She emailed him a pitch deck. And she
scheduled a meeting through the investor’s assistant for 4 pm the
following Tuesday. At the last minute, the investor said his
schedule had changed and asked if Minshew was free to meet at the
bar in his hotel that night. “That obviously wasn’t ideal,” Minshew
tells Wired, “but I felt like he had my deck, and I scheduled it
with his assistant.” So she went.

It was a typical meeting until the investor asked Minshew to
move over to a couch, where he sat down so close to her that his
body was leaning against the entire left side of hers, his arm
around her back, and his line of questioning, Minshew says, turned
personal. “I was pretty upset and trying to direct the conversation
back to business. He was definitely not going back to business,”
she remembers. “I was sitting with my arm in a blocking position
because he was so close. I was basically pushing his chest off me.
So after not long, I said ‘I have to leave’ and left.”

Afterword, Minshew wondered which warning signs she might have
overlooked before the meeting, but would soon come to learn this is
an all-too familiar scenario for young female founders. When she
tells the story to other women in the field, they typically
sympathise. “The biggest response from women entrepreneurs was:
‘Oh, I’m so relieved. I thought I was the only one.’”

The most challenging part of all this, she says, is that most
early-stage investing is built on camaraderie, and getting drinks
and other informal meetings are great ways to build that
camaraderie. Male founders generally don’t have to make so many
mental calculations about an investor’s intent before agreeing to
meet at a bar. Female founders do. “Guys can say: ‘It was great to
meet you at that event. Let’s go grab a beer,’” says Danielle
Weinblatt, who started the video interview platform, Take the
Interview, in 2011. “Women just can’t do that. We’re inevitably
always going to be left out of things, because there are certain
lines you can’t cross and things that are unspoken parts of the
boys club.”

‘Why do I have to go to gender-specific
investors?’


But for Weinblatt, just as frustrating as being excluded from the
“boys club” is being funnelled toward the “girls club.” Throughout
her fundraising process, she says, investors have repeatedly
directed her to other female investors. She remembers one meeting
with a venture capitalist who suggested Weinblatt meet Joanne
Wilson, an angel investor who funds primarily female-founders.
“Nothing gets under my skin more than when someone says: ‘Have you
met so and so? She likes investing in women,’” Weinblatt explains.
“Why do I have to go to gender-specific investors? Our company is
pretty gender agnostic, at this point.”

Weinblatt, who closed a $2.2 million (£1.3 million) Series A
funding round last year, knows comments like these are meant to be
helpful, and female-focused investors are enabling more women to
launch companies. But, she says, being told she needs to find an
investor who “likes investing in women” makes her feel like being a
woman is something to overcome. “I think that’s a terrible way to
look at it,” she says. “I hate this philosophy that because you’re
female, woe is you. I don’t want someone to feel sorry for me.”

When you’re a single mother, says Sheri Atwood, founder of
SupportPay, it’s even tougher to be taken seriously. The child of a
divorce and coming out of a divorce herself, Atwood built
SupportPay, an online platform to help divorced parents manage and
share child support. But almost as soon as she began pitching
investors in 2011, she faced a barrage of doubt as to whether she
could handle a company and kids at the same time.

Atwood says that while their concern is legitimate, it’s also a
bit backward. She believes it’s because she’s a single mother –
not despite it — that she’s a safe bet for investors. “I’m not
doing this as a side project. I don’t have a spouse supporting me.
I’m putting everything on the line, and I’m responsible for a
child,” she says. “I’m going to do everything possible to make that
work.”

But being a single mother wasn’t Atwood’s only problem. She’s
also a coder. With all the recent efforts from Google, Square, and
other organisations to get young girls interested in coding, it’s
hard to imagine Atwood’s ability to code was a drawback when she
was trying to get funded. And yet, she says, when she told her
investors she had built SupportPay herself, they repeatedly doubted
her. “No one believed me,” Atwood says.

‘This isn’t a 21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie
problem’


Once, an associate at a venture capital firm even gave Atwood a
bit of advice after turning her down for funding. “Hire a young guy
in a hoodie,” he said. “I laughed,” Atwood remembers. “Then I said:
‘That’s a great point, but the reason why there’s no solution on
the market today is because this isn’t a
21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie problem.’”

Luckily for Atwood, after about nine months of getting
questioned on everything from her ability to run a business as a
single mom to her blonde hair — one investor claimed brunettes are
taken more seriously — Atwood landed $1.1 million (£650,000) in
funding from several top angel investors, including Draper
Associates, Broadway Angels, and Marc Benioff. “They got it,” she
says. “They saw that my being a woman and my age was an asset.”

Indeed all of the women interviewed for this story have found
investors who they say have been wholly supportive throughout the
process. Even those who have experienced bias, like Tucker, say
it’s hard to get outraged about outright ignorance. In telling her
story, she merely hopes to help convince the investing community
that bias does exist, so they can begin to build systems within
their firms to “handicap for the bias.” “Relying on your gut is not
necessarily good business, and they’re leaving a lot of money on
the table, as a result,” she says.

Meanwhile, Minshew says it’s been “heartening” to see men in the
tech community listen to women’s stories and begin to talk about
the problem themselves. That, she says, may be the first step
toward real change. “Years ago, you could say really horrible,
racist things, and people who didn’t agree would stay quiet because
that was the time we were in. Now, we’re in a time where someone
says something horribly racist, and other people say: ‘Shit, I
can’t believe you just said that,’” Minshew explains. “My hope is
we’re moving toward a world in which if one partner at a VC firm
knows another partner is behaving inappropriately with female
entrepreneurs, it’ll be the same sort of shock and outrage. It’ll
be unacceptable.”

This article originally appeared on Wired.com

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30 July 2014 | 11:32 am – Source: wired.co.uk

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