searching for the female mark zuckerberg
“You’re a female founder. A lot of VCs, consciously or unconsciously, sort of automatically discriminate.” — Paul Graham, THE LAUNCH PAD
I was on a balcony enjoying balmy Hawaiian breezes and nursing a beer when I asked my buddy, one of those tech entrepreneur types who made his many millions in his twenties, “So why aren’t there more women in tech?”
I was thinking of a cover story: Where is the female Mark Zuckerberg?
He hemmed and hawed as graciously as possible – “they definitely have the ability” – and said something to the effect of female brains being “wired differently” – while also acknowledging that a lot of it was “social”.
It might have been an unfair question to spring on him. I ascribe to what I think of as the plane crash theory due to something I read when I was taking flying lessons years ago. Basically: a small plane crashes not because of one big thing going wrong, but a bunch of small things that accumulate into total disaster.
I suspect it’s that way with women in tech. Lots of small things going wrong that work to keep them out of tech, or at the margins of tech.
The woman question has irked writer Michael Arrington, who blogged in TechCrunch:
“….the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.
….The next time you women want to start pointing the finger at men when discussing the problem of too few women in tech, just stop. Look in the mirror. And realize this – there are women like [Rachel] Sklar who complain about how there are too few women in tech, and then there are women just who go out and start companies… Let’s have less of the former and more of the latter, please.”
Oh, well, that makes it easy then.
(Let’s take a moment here to distinguish between a startup and a small business. A startup is a company with a tech element that is built to scale as quickly and massively as possible. Lots of women start and run small businesses, which remain small businesses, but apparently that doesn’t qualify them as entrepreneurial or interested in entrepreneurship.)
“So why don’t women want to start startups?” asks Jessica Livingston, the only female partner at investment firm Y Combinator, the subject of the book THE LAUNCH PAD: Inside Silicon Valley’s Most Exclusive School for Startups.
Jessica blogged in her post What Stops Female Founders:
I wonder if it’s not that not enough women want to start startups, but that not enough women even consider it as an option. I was one of them. I wish now that I’d started a startup in my twenties instead of wasting those years in a series of boring corporate jobs. But the idea never occurred to me.
Maybe women just aren’t interested in tech.
Maybe male and female brains really are wired differently.
But maybe those differences have been exaggerated.
Maybe we overestimate the nature and underestimate the nurture that shapes those brains growing up.
There’s a psychologist named Ellen Langer from Harvard University who might suggest that this is the case. In 1981 she conducted the “Counter Clockwise experiment”, which inspired a BBC documentary. The purpose was
“….to find out what would happen when a group of eight elderly men were given the experience of living 20 years earlier. She and her team created a living environment complete with food, films, photos from the period. The group discussed news, politics and sport in the present tense as if they had travelled back in time.
Astonishingly the group became physically and psychologically younger. Their hearing, grip strength and manual dexterity improved. Memory and IQ scores also improved. Because their minds were actively engaged in living 20 years earlier, their bodies seemed to follow. Ellen believes this is a demonstration of how our bodies don’t let us down as we get older, it’s our minds that accept the labels of ageing. Freeing ourselves from that state of mind can turn back the clock.”
This experiment addresses health, but it’s worth thinking about all the things in our own shared environment that cue us about gender, what it means and how to be a man or a woman, the state of mind that gets created.
“Free your mind,” as the saying goes, “and your ass will follow.”
But first you have to see those self-imposed limitations for what they are in the first place.
Paul Graham, the founder and CEO of Y Combinator, points out that founders of tech companies tend to be friends who knew each other in high school and/or college, tend to be technical, and tend to have started computer programming pretty young. (In a culture that praises the rugged self-made individual, we tend to forget – or at least downplay – the fact that even Mark Zuckerberg didn’t found his company alone.) Those sets of friends tend to be same-sex “and if one group is a minority in some population, pairs of them will be a minority squared.”
A few weeks ago I had lunch with a bright young twentysomething female in tech. She identified herself as a geek in junior high and high school who wanted, she said, to be friends with the people who shared her geek tech interests, who were all…guys. They were nerdy and uncool and they recognized her as nerdy and uncool and so “wouldn’t have anything to do with me”. They were only interested in the “hot girls”.
So maybe Arrington is right and there isn’t any sexual discrimination whatsoever in Silicon Valley; if anything, female founders and entrepreneurs have the edge, because they’re rare and exotic as unicorns and so everybody wants to write about them and have them speak at conferences and do business with them. Maybe the discrimination happens earlier, in a number of ways on a number of levels, persuading girls to steer clear of tech or socially isolating the girls in tech so that founding a company just doesn’t strike them, as Jessica Livingston put it, “as an option”.
Earlier tonight I engaged in an increasingly heated conversation with J, a well-known and outspoken tech personality who informed me, in so many words, that the life of a startup founder is difficult and competitive, that the most successful tech entrepreneurs tend to be the biggest assholes, and so women decide quite sensibly that they don’t want anything to do with any of it.”
I couldn’t help saying, “You know, I always love it when men tell women what we want and what we don’t want, when they inform us of the nature of our own experience.”
Kind of like men once telling women that women didn’t have the vote because women didn’t want the vote.
“I may not be a woman, but I have a lot of experience in tech dealing with founders and being a founder. Do you have that kind of experience, Justine?”
“I have a lot of experience,” I retorted, “in being a woman.”
My point isn’t that women should start a startup; I agree that most women aren’t cut out for it. Most men aren’t cut out for it. But if a woman has the drive and ability and nature to do it, she should be presented with the same opportunities as any guy. And if those opportunities get thwarted at different stages along her life path, we need to examine why that is instead of blaming or getting defensive or dismissing the whole mess as immaterial because women have obviously “decided” that they want to hold hands and sing songs about love and peace and fingernail polish and Pinterest instead of descending into the muck and fray of icky macho startup culture.
We create our sense of ourselves through our interaction with other people, through our interaction with the culture at large. A culture that genuinely encourages girls and women to go into tech, to start up companies, would reflect a shared reality in which girls recognize the same range of possibility for themselves as for their male counterparts. That’s why it’s so important.
Because it’s kind of ironic that Arrington told girls and women to “look in the mirror” when it’s the female half of the species traditionally charged with vanity, with looking in the mirror all the time.
There’s that saying: you have to see it to be it.
Maybe it’s not about women failing to “look in the mirror”. It’s about what girls see looking back out at them. Or if they see anything at all.