Silicon Valley Confronts its Gender Gap

by Sara Tiller on June 24, 2013

1030719_people_3The first time I was told that I wasn’t suited to math or science, I was in elementary school. My dislike of math was news to me. I put in the same amount of work as any of the boys I went to school with. I scored about as well as my male classmates. I was a bit confused to find out that I wasn’t suited to it.

Sadly, the idea that women are not suited for mathematics, sciences, and computer programming doesn’t end in elementary school. Women-led science and technology startups are in the minority. The stereotype says that it is because women are ill-suited to these fields.

There are startups that break through that stereotype. Code for America, which connects programmers with government agencies, was launched by a woman. So was the personal finance platform LearnVest and photo-sharing service Flickr. These companies are anomalies among software companies.

Only three percent of tech startups in Silicon Valley are led by women. Add startups with women on their leadership team, and that number goes up to eleven percent. This gender gap is a problem, and it is a big one.

After all, innovative, life-changing ideas are not limited to one gender – why should we limit the ones that come to fruition by gender? How many potential products have we missed out on because of this gender gap?

Fingures on keyboardWomen are less likely to be entrepreneurs in technology for a variety of reasons. A short survey of those reasons includes: Silicon Valley has been a boys-only network for a long time; Funders are more likely to fund male-led companies; Women do not have the same networks of mentors as men do; We are less likely to major in computer science in university; and we take fewer math and science courses in high school.

In short, the gender gap is a hard problem to solve.

Because this problem has so many causes, there are many potential solutions. A few of those solutions include media companies like Women 2.0, which runs a startup competition for women-founded businesses and networking options for women entrepreneurs, and funding options like Fund Isabella and the Women’s Venture Capital Fund. These organizations work to provide women’s great ideas with the same backing as any other great idea. Books like Lean In, by Sheryl Sandburg, bring more attention to the gender problem in Silicon Valley.

I look forward to a day when women launch companies as often as men. I want those companies to have an equal chance of success. But I am also glad to be in this moment, where we don’t yet have the solutions, because the gender gap is now a subject of conversation.

What has happened? How can we fix it? Is this status quo good enough?

Pregnant womanJenn Wei, an investor at Blumberg Capital, has written about the gender imbalance in the tech industry. She also says that she has been concerned about focusing on the plight of women-led startups because she doesn’t want to be seen as “overplaying the victim card”. Wei is talking about one of the biggest obstacles that the tech industry must overcome to narrow the gender gap.

How can we narrow that gender gap when people do not believe it exists? The “victim card” is shorthand to say that the argument is illegitimate. It implies that someone is taking advantage of another. It suggests that the person playing the victim card is playing to someone else’s stereotypes to get ahead.

I hope that talking about the gender gap will help do away with the idea of a victim card. If we can acknowledge that sexism and gender discrimination are real and complicated, we are more likely to find successful solutions to the problem.

Sara Tiller is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about green building, housing, and environmental issues. When she’s not writing, she is a gardener, woodworker, and beginning kayaker. If you’d like to connect with her, you can find her on her blog, House Hopes.

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