San Francisco: Candace Fleming’s resume boasts a double major in industrial engineering and English from Stanford, an MBA from Harvard, a management position at Hewlett-Packard and experience as president of a small software company.
But when she was raising money for Crimson Hexagon, a start-up she co-founded in 2007, she recalls one venture capitalist telling her that it didn’t matter that she didn’t have business cards, because all they would say was “Mom”.
Another potential backer invited her for a weekend yachting excursion by showing her a picture of himself on the boat—without clothes. When a third financier discovered that her husband was also a biking enthusiast, she says, he spent more time asking if riding affected her husband’s reproductive capabilities than he did focusing on her business plan.
Ultimately, none of the 30 venture firms she pitched financed her company. She finally raised $1.8 million (Rs8 crore today) in March 2008 from angel investors including Golden Seeds, a fund that emphasizes investing in start-ups led by women. “I didn’t know things like this still happened,” says Fleming, 37. “But I know that, especially in risky times like the last couple years, some investors kind of retreat to investing via a template.” A company owned by a woman, she adds, “is just not the standard template.”
Though many people say that outright sexism is rare in the tech world these days, the barriers that Fleming encountered aren’t unusual.
Women own 40% of the private businesses in the US, according to the Center for W
omen’s Business Research. But they create only 8% of the venture-backed tech start-ups, according to Astia Inc., a non-profit group that advises female entrepreneurs. That disparity reaches beyond entrepreneurs. Women account for just 6% of the chief executives of the top 100 tech firms, and 22% of the software engineers at tech firms overall, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. And among venture capitalists, the population of financiers who control the purse strings for the majority of tech start-ups, just 14% are women, the National Venture Capital Association says.
Venturing out: Candace Fleming pitched an idea to 30 venture firms, but had no success until she tried a fund that focused on women. Rick Friedman/NYT
“It’s not like people are making an effort to exclude people, but I see very little diversity in the candidate pool,” says Aileen Lee, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, a big venture capital firm. She says this reflects the different educational paths men and women follow in high school and college: Men, for a variety of reasons, are more likely to pursue computer science and engineering degrees and subsequently rise through start-up or management ranks.
Women now outnumber men at elite colleges, law schools, medical schools and in the overall workforce. Yet a stark imbalance of the sexes persists in the high-tech world, where change typically happens at breakneck speed.
And analysts say more than social equity is at stake. A dearth of ideas and participation by women in the technology churn has business consequences as well. The latest Web start-ups often attract more women than men as users. And many products from tech giants are aimed at women. But when Apple unveiled its new mobile computing device, it called it the iPad—a name that made many women wince with visions of feminine hygiene products.
Research indicates that investing in women as tech entrepreneurs is good for the bottom line. Venture-backed start-ups run by women use on average 40% less capital than start-ups run by men and are increasingly involved in successful initial public offerings of stock, according to a recent white paper by Cindy Padnos, a venture capitalist who compiled data from 100 studies on gender and tech entrepreneurship.
Even so, some people say substantial barriers still confront women trying to scale the technological peaks. “It all boils down to education and accessibility and role models,” says Anu Shukla, who has founded three tech start-ups. “There aren’t enough women entrepreneurs because they don’t see enough women entrepreneurs ahead of them and successful.” The same still holds true in the tech world’s corporate corridors. “As you look around the entry-level management positions, even just the ranks of engineers or product people, there just aren’t many women,” says Carol A. Bartz, chief executive of Yahoo Inc. “So therefore, mathematically, it tells you it’s impossible for them to move up and run something.”
Math and science classes at Fleming’s all-girls high school in Albany, New York, weren’t as good as those at the all-boys school across the street, she says, so she trekked there and quickly became accustomed to being the only girl in the room. At Stanford, men outnumbered women by three to one in her engineering classes.
For Poornima Vijayashanker, an Indian immigrant, college was also a time when the promise of an engineering career first became apparent. Though all the men in her family were engineers, she spent her childhood dreaming of becoming a lawyer.
“To me, engineering seemed like a 9-to-5 job,” she recalls. “It wasn’t glamorous or exciting.” It wasn’t until a computer science class at Duke that she “first understood what engineering was all about—building something very quickly and being able to play with it”. She double-majored in computer science and electrical engineering—inspired by the young women who were professors in the department.
Vijayashanker, 27, became the only female engineer at Mint, a personal finance website started by a friend from Duke that was sold to Intuit Inc. for $170 million last year. Now she is starting her own company, BizeeBee, making software for small business, out of her apartment in Palo Alto, California. But she is weighing a new set of challenges. Though she is just a decade younger than Fleming, she has seen enough entrepreneurial women meet pitfalls that she is trying to navigate around those issues—like timing motherhood, for example.
Vijayashanker is starting her company now, partly because she wants to have a family in a few years and says the tech start-up lifestyle isn’t hospitable to child-rearing. That’s why, she says, many young women prefer working at big companies to starting their own.
Unlike Fleming and Vijayashanker, Karen Watts never got the engineering bug. Watts, the 38-year-old founder and chief executive of Corefino Inc., which makes business accounting software, was taking college math classes by the time she got to high school, but engineering didn’t grab her attention.
Girls begin to turn away from math and science in elementary school, because of discouragement from parents, underresourced teachers and their own lack of interest and exposure, according to a recent report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Computer Science Teachers Association.
Just 1% of girls taking the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in 2009 said they wanted to major in computer or information sciences, compared with 5% of boys, according to the College Board. Only 18% of college students graduating with computer science degrees are women, down from 37% in 1985.
One reason is that engineering has a serious image problem, many women in the field say.
“There’s a really strong image of what a computer scientist is—male, skinny, no social life, eats junk food, plays video games, likes science fiction,” says Sapna Cheryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has researched why few women choose computer-science careers.
According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 56% of women with technical jobs leave their work midway through their careers, double the turnover rate for men. Twenty per cent of them leave the work force entirely, and 31% more take nontechnical jobs—suggesting child-rearing isn’t necessarily the primary reason women move on.
Many are pushed to pursue supervisory and management jobs instead of “individual contributor” jobs involving deep technical expertise, according to a recent study by the Anita Borg Institute, an organization that explores the impact of women on the technology field.
What makes investors smile or frown on new firms led by women? Venture capital firms with senior female investors are more likely to attract and close deals with women-led start-ups, concluded a Kauffman Foundation report.
Networks are crucial for fundraising, because most investors don’t look at pitches that come over the transom. Since an overwhelming majority of venture capitalists are men and have gotten to the firms via start-ups or business schools—both places where women are underrepresented—women have a harder time gaining access to the Valley’s boys club, analysts say.
Studies have found that teams with both women and men are more profitable and innovative. Mixed-gender teams have produced technology patents that are cited 26-42% more often than the norm, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
There are signs that Silicon Valley is changing, albeit slowly. New organizations are sprouting up for young women in tech, like Girls in Tech and Women 2.0. One-quarter of the partners at Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm, are women, and some of the hottest start-ups—including Gilt Groupe, Hunch Inc., Ning Inc., Eventbrite and Meebo—were founded or co-founded by women.
They could change things for the next generation of girls aspiring to engineering careers and women already entering the field, Fleming hopes. “If their success becomes visible, so girls can identify with it, they will think, ‘Oh yeah, anyone can do this,’” she says.
©2010/The New York Times