Features & Columns

Women & Innovation

The attention lavished on Meg Whitman, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer belies the reality that an abysmally small percentage of the valley's top execs are women.
Can Silicon Valley be the innovation leader of the future if it clings to male-centric business models of the past?
Vivek Wadhwa, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg

At the 2009 TechCrunch Crunchies Awards, my wife, Tavinder, asked, "Where are the women?"

That one comment opened my eyes to an ugly reality: just as no women were featured on stage at the Crunchies other than the TechCrunch staff and one circus performer, the entire tech world was male-dominated. Suddenly I saw that the place I'd been touting as the world's greatest meritocracy had deep-rooted biases, which were systematically discriminating against the most innovative half of our population.

For years, I had been researching entrepreneurship, immigration and what made Silicon Valley tick. But I was so oblivious to the issue of gender that I didn't even record the sex of the thousands of entrepreneurs we had researched.

I started looking at Silicon Valley from this new perspective, and I saw that the executive teams of the Valley's top tech firms had very few, if any, women technology heads.

Virtually all of Silicon Valley's investment firms were male dominated.

Venture capital firms, or VCs, were the worst offenders—of the 89 VCs on the 2009 TheFunded.com list of top VCs, only one was a woman.

VCs commonly claimed they knew an entrepreneur when they saw one. And sadly, it was—and still is—acceptable for venture capitalists to openly tout their supposed "pattern recognition" abilities. But the patterns they saw were always young, white, male nerds resembling the founders above—and the VCs themselves.

As tech guru and angel investor Esther Dyson explains, "VCs tend to invest in people who look like themselves, whether it's color, whether it's gender, whether it's social class. It's hard to know who can be successful, so they tend to work with the familiar, and that leaves out most women," she said.

Real Numbers

To get a better understanding of the root of the gender problem, I decided to reanalyze data from my own studies on entrepreneurship.

I reviewed data from the Kauffman Foundation, which showed that women were actually more capital-efficient than men. Babson's Global Entrepreneurship Monitor revealed that women-led, high-tech startups had lower failure rates than those led by men.

I then considered whether a difference in educational backgrounds could be a factor. Data from the National Science Foundation showed that girls now matched boys in mathematical achievement. In the United States alone, 140 women enrolled in higher education for every 100 men.

This led me to address the gender imbalance in a regular blog that I was writing for TechCrunch in 2010, "Silicon Valley: You and Some of Your VCs have a Gender Problem." I was surprised at the intensity of the response I received in a barrage of hate mail, immature online chatter, and personal attacks on me over Twitter. I was further stunned to receive emails from highly respected VCs. One warned that "this was not the way to achieve success in the valley."

Another asked whether I was "trying to get laid" and suggested there were "better ways."

It is no doubt harder for women to gain funding, mentorship, support and connections than it is for men. Their proportion in computer science programs dropped from 37 percent in 1987 to 18 percent by 2012.

Dan Primack of Fortune magazine calculated that as of 2014, only 4 percent of senior investment partners at venture firms are women.

But there is a growing awareness of the problem, solutions are being discussed and implemented, women are beginning to help each other, and the venture capital system is looking at itself critically and mending its ways. Most importantly, the investment community is becoming less relevant because the cost of creating world-changing technologies is dropping dramatically and allowing women as well as liberated men to work on solving real world problems using exponential technologies... continue reading