Am I sexist?

Friday, December 9, 2011 5 Permalink

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?

5 Comments
  • bsinthemidwest
    December 9, 2011

    Glad you’re bringing this up, Becky!

    I think you’re right to point to middle school as a critical time for girls to either self-select or be pushed away from pursuing math and science-oriented activities. When I was growing up, it seemed like most video games were geared toward boys (let’s explode people!), and the stereotype of a computer club member tended along the lines of those socially awkward boys who wore bad jeans and didn’t know they needed to start shaving. I think it’s important for teachers, parents and technology corporations to support initiatives that will work against those early stereotypes.

    Along the lines of same-sex mentorship, I think it’s important for young women to see female leaders in any field who can model the way for success. Male-female mentorships can be hugely beneficial, but I also think that some women worry about how they will look. Unfortunately, people might whisper about what she’s doing to get ahead, or possible ulterior motives for a man to take a promising young woman under his wing. The rumormill might have fun with something like that – especially if she’s good-looking. This is a huge challenge for women.

    I think the more we openly discuss these topics, the more we can do to advance talented women. I literally just came from a lunch and learn at the library in which Mary Stier talked about women’s leadership. She addressed the tendencies of women to a) be perfectionists and not wanting to raise their hands until their contribution is perfectly honed b) wait to be asked instead of seeking the next step and c) being afraid of taking risk and editing their own ambition.

  • cat
    December 9, 2011

    I’d think you were sexist if you said you didn’t think a man would be as capable as a woman of being a good mentor. If you don’t completely rule out a male mentor, but think you would feel more comfortable with a female, that’s just…a thought experiment.

    I think it’s different in the business world — I get the impression there are more formal “I WILL NOW MENTOR YOU” talks. In creative culture you rarely choose a mentor. You just sort of find yourself working with people you jive on who are interested in guiding you along. So you might easily wake up one morning and realize you’ve FOUND a mentor.

  • Matthew Smith
    December 10, 2011

    There is an interesting parallel to the world of competitive poker playing where a similar question if often couched. In the poker world, there exists an imbalance in the ratio of male to female players and also the percentage of female winners of poker tournaments.

    The start up and poker worlds reward similar character traits. Aggression, risk tolerance, decisiveness (often using incomplete information), exploitation of weakness, understanding probability and game theory. Many of these have been historically considered to be typically male character traits. I think your question is one of nature v. nurture. Are there less women founders because women are wired differently then men? Or, does society condition women to be more risk adverse? The answer is yes. Historically society has tried to pigeon hole women into roles that were traditionally ‘female’. That trend has made strides over the last couple centuries and has quite a way to go.

    I think there exists a fundamental difference between the sexes that has evolved over aeons. I know for a fact that I cannot focus on more than one thing at a time, while my wife can handle myriad of activities with ease. That focus can be my best trait at times and at others the bane of my wife’s existence. There are tertiary benefits to being conditioned historically to perform certain tasks like hunter gathering. Benefits which produce character traits which are lauded in start ups. Just like certain physical traits can be beneficial in specific sporting environments that may have no other benefit apart from those. Like gigantic thumbs for thumb wrestling.

    It is interesting to note that once a business becomes viable where a more nurturing characteristic is rewarded that the percentage of women spikes dramatically.

    This is not to say that women or men cannot overcome predilections. It is not also to say that on a continuum that there are not some men or women that will be more heavy weighted in predisposed categories that would appear to disprove the rule. I would be interested to see more facts on the biology & sociology of this…maybe we can get John Gray to weigh in *eyes roll*

  • Adrienne
    December 12, 2011

    Just read this article and found it to be a nice tie-in with yours:
    http://techcrunch.com/2011/12/11/stop-telling-women-to-do-startups/

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