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Silicon Valley women are on the rise, but have far to go

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“Vivek, do you notice something strange”, asked my wife, Tavinder, during a start-up awards event hosted by TechCrunch in San Francisco two years ago. The only thing that surprised me, I told her, was that technology celebrities were dressed in ragged jeans and t-shirts.

“No, Vivek, tell me,” she said, clearly wishing to be taken seriously, “Where are the women?”

She was right. We were at the tech industry equivalent of the Oscars, and the only women on stage were TechCrunch CEO Heather Harde and a performer.

This is one of Silicon Valley’s most glaring faults: It is male-dominated. You don’t find many women in the executive teams of tech firms. Apple, for example, does not have a woman in its executive leadership. Other than a handful of notable exceptions like Padmasree Warrior of Cisco and Sandy Jen of Meebo, women chief technology officers are nowhere to be found. It’s equally bad in the venture capital world. Only one of the 84 venture capitalists on the 2009 The Funded list of top VCs was a woman.

This is all despite the fact that girls now match boys in mathematical achievement. Not to mention that, for every 140 women, there are 100 men enrolling in higher education. In addition, women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates.

Is the dearth of women in tech because they are inferior in some way or have different motivations? To determine this, I shared datasets that my research team at Duke University had previously gathered, with the National Center of Women in Technology. The findings, which I highlighted in 2010, were surprising.

We learned that there was almost no difference between men and women technology company founders. Both groups had an equally strong desire to build wealth. Both wanted to capitalize on business ideas, were attracted to the culture of startups, had long-standing desire to own their own company and were tired of working for others. There was also no difference in life circumstances between men and women founders. Their average ages when founding their companies were about the same: 40 for men, 41 for women. Likewise, successful men and women entrepreneurs founded their companies when they had similar numbers of children living at home, though men were more likely than women to be married. The only perceptible differences were in the encouragement that women received from co-founders and what men received. Women received slightly more funding than men did from business partners.

Why then are women being left out?

Over the last two years, in an effort to understand this phenomenon, I have interviewed roughly 300 women in the technology sector. My conclusion, as I’ve written previously, is that the problem starts with Mom and Dad—very few parents encourage their daughters to study science and engineering. Women also lack role models. Nearly all of the tech leaders we celebrate—Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg—are male. Then, when women join engineering companies, they are a small minority and they don’t get the support or encouragement they need. Meanwhile, they have to battle negative stereotypes, making it nearly impossible to reach the rank of manager.

Women who have tried to raise venture capital also tell horror stories of the gender-based questions they are asked. These include, “What does your husband think about the long hours you are going to keep,” “how are you going to manage with a baby,” and “how will you balance home and work?” Entrepreneur Vinita Gupta wrote a powerful essay in 2010, about her experience balancing her pregnancy with her efforts to raise capital and the dilemma she has seen other women face.

But this problem can be fixed, and progress is already being made.

Silicon Valley has its faults, but at the end of the day it assimilates and embraces the groups that break through its barriers. That is how Indians went from being low-level engineers to founders of 15.5 percent of its tech firms. This is despite the fact that Indian-born workers constitute only 6 percent of the Valley’s population. Indians learned that the way to succeed in the tech world was to network, and that you could uplift an entire community by mentoring others.

This is what women in the Valley are increasingly doing. There are groups like Women 2.0, Astia, Anita Borg Institute, and Iridescent, which hold frequent networking events for women, high school students, and disadvantaged groups, connecting them to mentors. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has made the issue one of their top priorities, providing financial support to Women 2.0 and Astia as well as other programs focused on fostering and supporting women entrepreneurs.­­­

I attended one of these events on Nov. 2, at the offices of Andreesen-Horowitz—one of the Valley’s leading venture firms. I moderated a panel discussion, hosted by Iridescent. We discussed how best to help high school girls break the “Silicon Ceiling.” The panelists included some the Valley’s most successful women: Padmasree Warrior of Cisco, Marissa Mayer of Google, Freada Kapor of Level Playing Field Institute, Sandy Jen of Meebo, and Angela Benton of NewMe Accelerator.

All of these women volunteered their time to inspire others to provide mentorship. The organizers expected 80 potential mentors to attend, yet more than 130 came. The event was standing room only, and the atmosphere was electrifying—much like other women’s networking events I have attended in the Valley over the last two years.

Shaherose Charania, founder of Women 2.0, says that women entrepreneurship in the Valley has doubled over the last three years. She told me that her group’s surveys show that interest by young women in tech entrepreneurship is growing dramatically.

So it seems that things are moving in the right direction, and that we may be making progress in empowering the other half of our society to participate in tech entrepreneurship.

But we’ve got a long way to go.

The Iridescent event, like all of the other women’s events I have attended in the Valley, was open to all. But 95 percent of the attendees were women. Notably, neither Marc Andreesen nor Ben Horowitz participated. They, like other Silicon Valley men, should be far more active in mentoring and motivating women and minorities. After all, it is in their self interest to increase the size of the investment pool, and the quality of the companies they invest in.

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