The Tech World is Still a Boys Club

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This post originally appeared on Incentivize

A few weeks ago I attended South by Southwest (SXSW) for the first time ever. I think the best way to describe it was kind of like a Las Vegas for nerds.

SXSW is filled with incredible panel discussions, amazing speakers free food and live music. But what really makes the place magical is the serendipitous nature of the event that leads to authentic bonding and new friendships. SXSW is about randomly meeting cool people while in line for breakfast tacos in the morning and then going out for drinks and talking shop with them until 4:00 AM. Often times, these people turn out to be founders of startups, who are looking to partner with other startups or venture capitalists who are looking for deal flow. The type of authentic bonding that occurs at SXSW makes it easier to strike deals down the road, as people like to work with people they get along with.

However, after four days and nights of parties and world-class networking, I had a bit of an epiphany. SXSW made me recognize that the startup and social enterprise worlds are still nothing more than a giant boys club. At the very end of each night I would look around and it would just be a bunch of dudes having a good time. While I was having a blast, I simultaneously thought to myself, ‘how difficult must it be for a female to fit into this world?’

I’ve founded two social ventures (GiveForward and DealGooder), both with incredible female co-founders. I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for the women I work with, but after attending SXSW my admiration and appreciation has grown by ten fold. Startups are incredibly hard to build, even when you are a white male. But they are infinitely harder when you are an outsider looking in.

While I am not going to pretend I have a solution to this problem, my question to everyone is how do we make the startup and socent worlds more inclusive to the other 50% of the population?

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6 thoughts on “The Tech World is Still a Boys Club

  1. You’ve helped a great deal in founding great startups with great women. I think it’s terrific that you’re considering the issue, but the problem goes back kind of far – girls are generally led to think of math and science as “hard” and discouraged from pursuing the subjects as they get older.

    Another issue is one that many women don’t like to talk about, and it’s that many women tend to be less than supportive of other women in the field. So you combine fewer women pursuing an education that would put them on a better track toward a career in tech with less than supportive (not in all cases, by any means) women, plus a bunch of dudes who create apps like “Girls Around Me” or whatever the hell that one was called, and it can be discouraging.

    The thing is, it is beginning to change. And eventually, maybe no one will write posts like this. We can hope. :)

  2. It’s not the math, or the Mean Girls, or the Brogrammers – it’s the sex. It’s always about the sex, even when it’s supposed to be about business or innovation.

    Take SXSW. The sessions during the day go great, meet lots of great people. Eat breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner with new and interesting people of all sexes, ages, backgrounds. Then the nighttime comes and the prowl starts in the after-parties and bars. All the old roles and behaviors kick in. So you stay with the women and miss the bonding and business after 6:00pm.

    Take the office. M-F everyone’s working away doing their thing, conversing and brainstorming on all the cool new ideas and plans. Everyone goes to lunch, no problems there. But then a cocktail after work comes up. Sure you can go with the guys, but if you go too often, drink too much or go with one particular one too often, it becomes a problem. Either for you, the guy, your boyfriend, his girlfriend, the office gossip…you get the picture.
    So you don’t go as often and miss the bonding and business. You can’t even Skype with the guys at work much or you are crossing the line.

    Take the boardroom. You have worked hard to get where you are, along with everyone else in the boardroom. You are invited to a dinner party with everyone. Your husband does want to go because he doesn’t want to play the roll of the wife while you talk business with the boys. He doesn’t want to be Prince Phillip to your Queen Elizabeth, event after event, all dressed up and in the corner. Or there is a hunting trip planned for the board, with everyone staying in a cabin for the night. Drinking will be involved. You just can’t go and sleep with a bunch of dudes, booze and guns. Prince Phillip really doesn’t like that one. And really neither do you.

    So you participate, but stay somewhat isolated by some weird vibe. The conversation flows but is always a bit different when you are around. Some groups of men are more comfortable than others with women around and you can clearly tell which. Not that your want or need to be in every funny conversation, but it does get harder in many groups. Birds of a feather just like to stick together.

    It’s just not easy for a pimp out there.

  3. Oh – and this week’s events highlight this even more: Virginia Rometty and the Masters.

    If Tiger isn’t going to win, can we at least let a woman in the door?

  4. Thankfully, because of awesome people like you and others spreading awareness, innovative solutions to address the lack of female founders in the start-up/so-cent world are already starting to take off.

    A couple of them include programs like the pipeline fellowship. ( http://www.pipelinefellowship.com/home/ ) The Pipeline Fellowship trains female philanthropists to become angel investors through education, mentoring, and practice. It not only has female mentors as part of its program, but men also, two of them including Brad Feld, and Fred Destin, which I think is pretty Rad!!

    Fellows in the program commit to invest in a “woman-led for-profit social ventures” in exchange for equity and a board seat at the end of the training. The Pipeline Fellowship aims to diversify the investor pool and connect women social entrepreneurs with investors who get them.

    Another one is Women Innovate Mobile. http://www.womeninnovatemobile.com
    Women Innovate Mobile (WIM) is the first startup accelerator and mentorship-driven program designed for women-founded companies in mobile technology. WIM’s goal is to provide women entrepreneurs with the guidance, feedback and connections needed to make their startups best in class companies and formidable business concerns.
    Their first round just kicked off a few weeks ago in NYC and I’m excited to see how things go for them!!

    With more and more male VC’s and founder’s in the tech and so-cent world supporting female leadership in founder and executive roles we will see a significant increase overall. This will eventually scale.

    Thanks again so much for your awesome post Ethan!! We loved it!!

  5. Ethan,
    It is interesting you post this in 2012. I have not attended SXSW – not for any particular reason – except my work focuses on nonprofit management and fundraising. I have spent my time at Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) and more recently NTEN – NTC. Where there are an abundance of women and men working together.

    This does remind me of a conversation I had with a friend. I was invited to “join” the women’s committee of a political campaign – with its required “donation”. When I inquired of a male friend about participating and “joining” he asked, “Why would you opt-in to women’s club, when the larger group is also open and costs $x dollars?” From that point on, I try very hard to be a joiner wherever it fits for me personally and professionally. Gender does not play a part in my decision making. Is it a good place to learn, network, listen, spend my time…? Then I am there. And no matter the population – I always feel welcome and participate.

    I don’t think so-cent, VCs, SXSW intend to be gender heavy one way or another. Silicone Valley Foundation and their donors have a great mix. Heck, we may have a transgender candidate in the Miss Universe pageant! I think social media is a great leveler – so outside of Board rooms and executive committees – everyone has a voice and should use it.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!
    Barbara

  6. Shirley says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! I’m a woman in the computer graphics industry and have many experiences with this. What often happens is that the females are (sometimes consciously, but more often, subconsciously) simply left out. If the guys are heading out for lunch, nobody thinks to invite the lone female. At the SIGGRAPH conference, I was chatting with two male colleagues while standing in a line for a talk. Within a few minutes, they both had their backs to me and were only talking amongst themselves. I don’t think this is done on purpose, most of the time. However, it is still a problem.

    As a previous poster said, the vibe is a little weird when females are included. Despite that, I think that is one of the solutions — remember to include everyone in the conversation, even if it means everyone has to be on their best behavior or even if the vibe has to get a little weird. Eventually, it won’t be weird. Start with the people in the room. Maybe it will get easier and easier as time goes on.

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