How Women Can Conquer a New Frontier: Tech Startups

How Women Can Conquer a New Frontier: Tech Startups

When you think of a programmer, developer or hacker, who do you picture?

If it isn't a guy in glasses, jeans and an inside joke about HTML, you're probably in the minority ... but new initiatives are looking to change that image.

Today, women in tech are like women on corporate boards--they're few and far between. According to GOOD, only about 20% of computer programmers are women, and the number of female computer science grads has fallen over the past two decades from nearly 40% of CS grads in the 1980s to only 18% in 2009.

The fact is that at this point, technology is not only an integral part of our daily lives, but also a rapidly expanding industry. If women are discounted or being excluded, it stands to reason that they're disproportionately missing out on the opportunities the tech field can provide for leadership and for employment--and tech companies are missing out on the contributions of half of the population.

But several new initiatives are helping to change those depressing stats.

It's Uneven at the Top

The disparity isn't just in the people creating code. It's also in the higher levels, when it comes to women founding tech companies. According to The New York Times, women own 40% of United States businesses but only 8% of venture-backed tech startups.

Women tech entrepreneurs raise 70% less money than men, largely because investors doubt their commitment to their companies over their family. A prominent angel investor went so far as to write last year that a pregnant founder and CEO will fail her company, and the female founder of Send the Trend says that "there is total discrimination in the start-up world against women who are pregnant." For that reason, the co-founder of XO Group kept her baby "a complete and total secret" when her company began.

Of course, we can't say definitively that a degree in computer science would smooth the path for a woman-run tech startup, but it couldn't hurt--consider the case of former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson, who left the company after a shareholder revealed that he had lied about having a computer science degree on his résumé.

Investors See the Need for Women

But new programs like Etsy's partnership with Hacker School, which offered $5,000 scholarships to 20 women to live in New York City for a summer of courses learning coding, give us hope that things might change. The program accepted three more than it had advertised for a roster of 23 students ... out of 661 applicants.

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There are now funds that make an effort to invest in women-led startups, like Golden Seeds, which is considered one of the most powerful groups of female angel investors and has put its weight behind more than 20 startups. There's Springboard Enterprises, "the premier platform where entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts meet to build great women-led businesses," and Astia, "a not-for-profit organization built on a community of men and women dedicated to the success of women-led, high-growth ventures."

Even though currently, the National Venture Capital Association estimates that only about 14% of venture capitalists investing in tech start-ups are women, clearly investors and educators alike see a need for women in tech ... if only to avoid the spread of "brogrammer" culture.

How Would Women Make the Difference?

But why is it so important to include women in tech culture at all? As it currently stands, we can't take data from comparing a tech world with an equal number of women to a tech world without--because the former doesn't exist. We have to draw our conclusions from similar situations: Research shows that it takes at least three women on a corporate board to make a palpable change in the company's operations, so it stands to reason that a similar critical mass would be required to affect the tech world--although of course, who knows how many women it will take?

Plus, more research shows that companies with more women on their top management teams earned more than companies with fewer women, and how do you get more women into management at top tech companies? One way is to get them into the industry as programmers and developers who rise through the ranks.

A female Ph.D student from MIT is quoted in GOOD as saying: "Women will be more likely to enter and stay in tech if they can picture themselves fitting comfortably into tech positions ... Cultivating a non-brogrammer culture, hiring women, and making the women an important and visible part of the culture (without putting too much pressure on the women) are important steps towards getting more women into tech positions."

And from what we can tell at this point, more women in tech would definitely be a good thing.

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