It’s been a tough summer for Silicon Valley. First in June, Ellen Pao, a junior partner at the prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, filed a bombshell sexual discrimination suit against the company, which is one of the few in Silicon Valley to boast a somewhat-passable reputation for hiring women. The suit, which was detailed in an article in the New York Times, offered a fascinating, rare peek at the appallingly macho nerd culture in Silicon Valley. Then later that month Katherine Losse, a former Facebook employee, published a book called The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network , which painted a disturbingly sexist picture of the Facebook culture in the early days and an especially scary Mark Zuckerberg. But is Silicon Valley as bad a place for women as we think? I don’t know if Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, would agree. Is it really a terrible place because of sexist “brogrammers” constantly degrading and belittling women? We thought we would talk to a few women about this.
According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, data shows that while about 41% of private companies in the U.S. are owned by women, only 3-5% of them get venture capital. The U.S. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor says that women start ventures with eight times less funding than their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to go into personal debt getting their businesses off the ground. But the number of women starting tech companies nationally has doubled the past three years, according to an informal poll by Women 2.0. According to USA Today, it’s way cheaper to start a company today because Web servers and other equipment cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not the millions once required for high-end computer servers. Newer technologies, such as cloud computing, reduce infrastructure costs. And coding isn’t as onerous as it once was. Those changes have allowed entrepreneurs to build products faster and land funding sooner. This has led to all but two of the 19 U.S.high-tech IPOs in 2009 had at least one female officer. Compare that with 1988, when only 4% of the 134 firms that went public in the U.S. had women in top management spots.
So progress is being made but what is happening in Silicon Valley? Heddi Cundle, founder of MyTab, a website that works as a virtual gift card, allowing friends and family to contribute money to a person to help them fund their trip. She told The Grindstone:
“There is and it’s widely known and acknowledged that Silicon Valley is a total boys club. No other industry has it as bad as SV. But it’s a subconscious problem and that’s even worse. As a journalist friend mentioned recently, it’s like trying to do business with one hand tied behind your back i.e. not investing in female founded companies. I should have got funding 18 months ago but nope, investors will not follow through and then invest in a startup (headed by guys) with a business that’s just really lame and mine isn’t.
But I adore this industry! I think the investors are great but they absolutely do not invest in female entrepreneurs – especially single founders. It’s been implied to me many times that maybe a tech co-founder will get me funding and I refuse to do that. Richard Branson can’t fly a plane and he created a successful airline. I can’t code, so what’s stopping me?”
Heddi brings up a very interesting point. She feels discriminated against because she doesn’t know how to code even though she is a great entrepreneur. As Amaryllis Fox, CEO of Mulu.me said, a female tech engineer is still regarded as some sort of mythical creature. And unfortunately women may have to step up to the plate and learn to code even if they are not “technology” people. And they may have to do this just to give themselves an edge over guys. Even if non-technical female entrepreneurs don’t end up writing any of the code, having a working knowledge of programming helps make sure they’re on the same page as and can properly communicate with their tech team. It’s also a huge asset when trying to raise funding: most VCs are interested in both the management and technical aspects of the company, and having the fluency to discuss the technical side with them is crucial. “It’s important for all entrepreneurs to know code, but it’s especially important for women since they are so much less represented in technology and in startups,” Heather Payne, the founder of a Toronto-based not-for-profit called Ladies Learning Code, told The Grindstone.