I’d feel more comfortable having a woman as a mentor than a man. Is that sexist? At least one man in my office thought so when we got on the topic of why there aren’t more women in tech startups.
The debate started when I read about a new Des Moines startup called Hoops & Garters in Juice. The online bridal registry was started by two women, which I thought was pretty awesome given the scarcity of women-led tech startups both locally and nationally. In fact, only 3% of tech firms are founded by women even though we make up more than half the population. Why such a disparity?
My co-worker believes women and men are fundamentally different (I agree) and perhaps women are more risk-averse or aren’t willing to give up family time to start a business. That doesn’t explain, however, why women own 28% (and growing) of all businesses in this country. Clearly there is something about technology that doesn’t appeal to women in the same way other entrepreneurship opportunities do.
I think this disconnect starts for women when they are very young. I don’t believe girls are encouraged in the areas of math and science in the way boys are. Research backs me up. There is a deep-rooted stereotype that boys are better than girls at math and science and, although false, that belief negatively affects girls’ performance in these subjects. A lack of female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) professions only reinforces young girls’ lack of self-confidence.
My personal experience backs up these findings. I will never forget failing a timed multiplication test in the 7th grade. Rather than offering suggestions such as tutoring and re-testing, my male teacher informed me I could not take pre-Algebra the next year. He also told the entire class how many students passed and failed the test. His effort to praise the pre-Algebra kids ended up completely deflating my self-esteem. My single mother, who also didn’t excel at math as a child, compounded the problem by trying to make me feel better by telling me I didn’t really need math to succeed in life.
In recent years, educators have admitted there is a gender gap in math and science, and they are working to make improvements. Programs like Microsoft’s DigiGirlz also help get girls excited about STEM careers, but it will take time for their effects to be seen in the workforce.
During my workplace argument on this topic, I suggested women might be less likely to start a tech business because they don’t have as many role models as men, nor as many mentors of the same sex available to them. The sexist part, it seems, is that I believe women may be more comfortable (whether consciously or not) with female mentors. The four men participating in this discussion said if they made the same argument about men wanting to work with other men, I’d be up in arms. Perhaps. But I think there is a valid reason why persons of a historically oppressed class (women and minorities) may feel less intimidated around other members of that same group. We share an experience that others simply cannot understand. It is easier to let our guard down with each other because there is a foundation of trust that is established simply because of our common social circumstances.
When there aren’t other women in a field, I naturally feel less welcomed and more guarded (in the same way I would expect a man might feel like an outsider in a female-dominated occupation, such as nursing). For the first time in my life, I now work in a male-dominated office (there are 11 men here and only 3 women) and a male-dominated field. And it’s damn intimidating. So I am not at all surprised by the lack of women at networking events I attend.
I may not be surprised, but I am disappointed. When men or women are underrepresented in any field, it suffers. Your industry cannot address the needs of all if it is not being run by all. The tech startup world is simply not as innovative as it could (and should) be because women aren’t contributing enough to the process. And that’s a damn shame.
So, I ask you. Am I sexist? Actually, what I really want to hear are your thoughts on why my new industry is where it is. Why aren’t there more women starting technology businesses? And how do we change that?