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A few years ago, if you had asked me about Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance, I would have wondered what planet you were from. I believed it was a perfect meritocracy that was open and diverse. My research had documented that the majority of Silicon Valley’s startups were founded by immigrants and that powerful and inclusive networks gave it a global advantage.
That was until I moved to Silicon Valley and started noticing the gender composition of technology companies. I learned that it was a boys club. Even the immigrants left women out of their networks and support systems. I have since researched the problem extensively and crowd-created a book about the challenges that women have faced and how they are surmounting them. For this book, Innovating Women, which was released on Sept. 2, hundreds of women shared their stories and the secrets of their success.
Here are some of the most common challenges that the women said they faced:
Preconceived and Unchallenged Cultural Notions of Gender
The women often found themselves to be either the only woman, or one of very few women, sitting at the decision-making table. Many also said they had been mistaken for the “coffee-getter.”
“On my very first job as a scientist, I arrived early at work to set up my presentation. Just then, the big-big-big boss arrived and asked me where the coffee was located and, wherever it was, could I get some for him,” said Susan Baxter, executive director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology.
Sunny Bates, CEO of Red Thread, shared a conversation she had had with a new mother: “When she had a girl, everyone was, ‘Oh she’s so pretty, she’s so beautiful,’ and all these dresses came. Then when she had a boy, it was all about the San Francisco Giants and the future president of the United States. No one once said, ‘Oh he’s beautiful.’ ”
Negative Stereotypes and Discouragement
Emily Fowler, co-founder and vice president at HeroX, recalls her high-school experiences: “The stereotypes were your traditional comments like ‘nerd,’ ‘dork’ ‘loser.’ Oh, and my personal favorite was ‘lesbian.’ Fortunately, I didn’t care and I had a sharp enough mouth at a young age that when people—and by people, I do mean guys—said that to me, I would just retort with, ‘First of all, being a lesbian is not an insult. Secondly, being smart or curious doesn’t make me a lesbian. What did you learn at football camp?’ Girls teased me as well and that was a bit hurtful. Mostly, they were concerned that I would be seen as a lesbian.”
Educational Bias Against Women and Girls
The Bayer Corporation ran a survey in 2010 that found that 40% of women and ethnic-minority chemists and chemical engineers had been discouraged from pursuing their field, most often by college professors. The survey respondents identified three top factors that helped keep women and minorities from majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics): lack of quality educational programs in those fields in poorer school districts (75%); persistent stereotypes that say STEM isn’t for girls or minorities (66%); and financial issues relating to the cost of education (53%).
Pam Barry, co-founder and chief operating officer of Customerforce.com, said: “My father suggested I had the aptitude to be a computer programmer. I was told by my career-guidance counselor that I would be lucky if I could get a job as a computer operator, never mind programmer. My mother was furious with her, and my parents set out to help prove her wrong. At age 17 I took two aptitude tests for two different organizations and was offered a position with both as a programmer. Chose one of the offers and dropped my applications for university.”
Lack of Resources and Role Models
Whether in finding female role models or in obtaining funding, women have always been at a disadvantage. Ann Winblad, who has become one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, recalled how she started her financial and accounting software firm, Open Systems Inc., in 1974, just 13 months out of college, with a $500 loan from her brother. Believing in her ability to write software, she convinced three friends to go on sabbatical or quit their jobs to join her. She negotiated free access to the computers of a local computer reseller in the evenings, and persuaded a bank to lend her $25,000 and her teammates to accept salaries low enough to allow them to qualify for food stamps.
Sian Morson founder of Kollective Mobile, said of the lack of role models: “Black women at the agencies I worked at were in [human resources] or some other administrative or supporting roles … No one took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, and if they did they looked more like James than like me. I carved my own path up the ladder of success, buoyed by the beliefs instilled in me by my family and by having a strong sense of self.”
The Age-old Question, “Can Women Have It All?”
Balancing work and home life was one of the liveliest conversations on our discussion boards. Consultant Anne Hartley summarized the challenge by saying: “Until we get completely comfortable with ‘dads’ in roles that have been traditional ‘mom’ roles as the norm, young women who get all the right education and then retreat will continue to feed the gap we are trying to address. When society and cultural norms evolve to where women do not feel that they must ‘choose’ their place in the family over fully applying their education and themselves for the benefit of humanity or that they are ‘bad mothers’ to manage their career at the same level of importance as their family.”
Women are now achieving extraordinary successes. And this is causing the face of Silicon Valley to change.
When I started writing about the gender disparity I saw in Silicon Valley, I took intense fire from the boys club. I received a barrage of hate mail and personal attacks on me over Twitter. They could get away with this because such frat-boy behavior was considered acceptable in Silicon Valley.
But things are changing for the better. There is outrage at the sexism that is coming to light in Silicon Valley; 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.
This was a view upon which most of the hundreds of women who helped crowd-create my upcoming book Innovating Women agreed. Each had followed a different path to success, because there was no single problem or solution. There were some common themes, however.
Many women said that they had a great network of family and friends who believed in them that proved essential in dealing with problems such as funding and hectic work-hours. Phaedra Pardue, cloud and content consultant for Sohonet Media Network, said: “My close network includes my colleagues and my mother-in-law Madalene Simons, who was one of the first female stockbrokers. While she always looks picture perfect in her lovely suits and petite frame, she packed a powerful presence that was undeniably a game-changer in her industry. In fact, I knew her long before I ever met my husband, as we both belonged to Portlandia, a women’s networking group for female business executives in Portland, Oregon. If I could give any advice to those starting their career, find a group of like-minded people to connect with. It has made all the difference for me.”
Megan Groves, a digital-marketing consultant, said: “I’ve had a long list of mentors over the years myself, in academia, business, and for general life guidance, and most have been men. Several live in different cities, but we’ve kept in touch with regular Skype calls and in-person meetings when we find ourselves in the same area. I’ve seen that many men have a genuine interest in helping bring out the best in the women around them, even when other women may or may not share that desire. I think it’s important to seek out women to trust and learn from, but I also believe in accepting support where we can find it.”
Xerox Chief Technology Officer Sophie Vandebroek shared her shock at finding out that only one girl at her daughter’s school was put in the advanced math program, and that her daughter and her daughter’s friends were put in the regular level despite their achievements. “I called the other moms and we complained and then they put the girls back in advanced math. So even schools unconsciously put the girls into less scientific fields, and once you do that in the middle school, you lose them. So you have to really be on top of them. It was the same girls that got into advance math in the middle school that then ended up all getting into science, three of them engineers and the fourth one is now in medical school.”
Giving Back to the Community
Kay Koplovitz founded USA Network and turned it into a leading cable network. After exiting from it, she went on to found Springboard Enterprises, which has helped more than 550 women-led companies get off the ground. These companies have raised more than $5.5 billion and created more than 10,000 jobs since their inception.
Lynn Tilton, who now owns a holding company that manages 75 companies with a total of more than $8 billion in annual revenue, faced grueling obstacles on her road to success. Yet she now obsesses over helping others. She wrote: “My dream is to end the plague of joblessness. But my new hope is to inspire women to unearth their collective strength, deeply rooted in female creativity and compassion, so that we might find a way to unite on our journeys. We can be smart, sexy, and sophisticated and still rule the world. Perhaps this evolution must start with young girls before they grow jaded.”
“I have reintroduced an old cosmetic brand—Jane Cosmetics—for younger women, where for every one cosmetic item that is purchased, the company gives one to a shelter for battered women in your community—‘buy one, give one to a neighbor in need.’ It is my confidence that through this company we can help teach a younger generation of women that compassion is contagious and that kindness can be the new cool. I have dedicated my efforts and my companies’ sponsorship to support Dean Kamen in his FIRST robotics competition in order to attract a larger populace of girls by making certain they never feel the need to choose between brains and beauty. I am in the process of posting the X Prize that I have designed and funded, that which will offer an extra $5 million to any winning X Prize team that boasts a female CEO and women in half its leadership roles in women. Perhaps the size of the prize will inspire the drafting of brilliant women to the technology teams advancing solutions to the world’s largest problems.”
Conviction and Defiance
The discussions made clear that women entrepreneurs all understood that sacrifice and risks were involved but remained determined to achieve their goals. They knew they would have to think smarter and work harder and deal with sexism.
Heidi Roizen described how, when she was an entrepreneur, a PC manufacturer’s senior vice president, who had been instrumental in crafting a large deal she was about to close, asked her to accept a gift—in his unzipped pants. She let the deal fall apart.
Another time, while she was pitching a Boston-based VC, “one of his partners engaged in a pantomime in the corridor, making a circle with the fingers of one hand while poking his other fingers through the circle, then thrusting his hips in a sexual fashion,” wrote Roizen. She says she found it rather hard to concentrate on her pitch and did not get a term sheet from that firm.
And once, while pregnant, she was asked by a male Silicon Valley investor how she’d be able to perform after her baby was born. According to Roizen, he said: “My partners are concerned that when you have this baby, you are going to lose interest in the company and not be a good CEO. How can you assure us that won’t happen?”
Yet Roizen persevered. She obtained financing from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and became a partner herself at that firm.
Because of the success of women such as these, there are strong role models.Because women are now outnumbering men in higher education, advancing technologies are making it possible to start world-changing companies without the need for venture capital, so the playing field is becoming level. And because of the maternal instincts and resulting empathy that many women have, they are best positioned to solve the biggest problems of humanity.
This is why I believe it is so important to support and encourage women to join the innovation economy.
Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com. First published in The Wall Street Journal.