In any debate, it is easy to revert to anecdote and highlight examples that exemplify one point of view. Recent TechCrunch posts about women in tech have done just that. The latest of these claimed that women don’t want to run startups, because they’d rather have children. I can understand why: TechCrunch and its editors focus on the Silicon Valley/Web 2.0 world. In this world, most startups—or at least those that get attention— are founded by young white males; aggression and arrogance are considered positive traits; companies need to be grown very fast—even recklessly—because markets change rapidly; and venture capitalists pay promising students to drop out of school to start companies that will likely fail and wreck their careers. So if you’re debating this tiny slice of the tech universe, it is fair to say that women and minorities can’t—or don’t want to—compete. But this isn’t representative of the larger tech world; and it certainly isn’t representative of American industry.
Take the issue of whether the desire to have kids or just run lifestyle businesses makes women averse to running startups. This is an accurate description of some women: they just aren’t cut out for the rough-and-tumble world of entrepreneurship—which requires extremely hard work and in which most startups fail. But it’s the same with men: men too avoid entrepreneurship because they fear risk and aren’t ready to put in the long hours. There is no black or white: many women with children have succeeded with startups, while other successful women entrepreneurs have chosen not to have children.
My research team systematically analyzed the backgrounds of 652 startup founders in the tech industry. We looked not just at the narrow slice of tech companies that gets featured most often on TechCrunch, but at the broader universe—those that economists, professors, and the general public would call high-technology companies. And then we studied the backgrounds of a sample of 549 company founders of companies in 12 industries that grow as fast as those in technology, and are equally important to the U.S. economy. Our research focused on “successful” startups—those that had made it out of the garage, had employees, and were actually generating revenue.
We learned that the average age of a successful tech-company founder isn’t 21 as is commonly believed in Silicon Valley, but 39; or, in the broader universe of high-growth companies, 40. Founders of high-growth companies are likely to be married and to have two or more kids. They typically have six to ten years of work experience and real-world ideas. They start companies because they get tired of working for others and want to build wealth before they retire. What stops most people from embarking on the path to entrepreneurship is fear of failure and of the amount of time and effort required.
The question that was posed to me by a number of women’s groups was: what is the difference between men and women founders? This is something that I hadn’t given much thought to, but that I thought was worthy of analysis because it would reveal major differences. I expected that women had very different backgrounds and motivations from those of men.
I shared our data sets with Joanne Cohoon of the National Council of Women in Technology (NCWIT), and she worked with NCWIT analysts to crunch the data. I was really surprised at what we learned: that there was almost no difference between men and women company founders. Both groups had an equally strong desire to build wealth; wanted to capitalize on business ideas; were attracted to the culture of startups; had long-standing desire to own their own company; and were tired of working for others. There were, however, slight differences between the encouragement that women received from co-founders and what men received; and women received slightly more funding than men did from business partners.
Equally importantly, we found no difference in life circumstances between men and women founders. Their average ages when founding their first companies were the same. Likewise, successful men and women entrepreneurs founded their first companies when they had similar numbers of children living at home, though men were more likely than women to be married.
But there is certainly an imbalance between the sexes entering high-tech fields, and that imbalance is increasing over time. The proportion of women studying computer science decreased from 37 percent in 1985 to 19 percent today, according to the National Science Foundation. The imbalance stems from the lack of encouragement that girls receive from their parents to study mathematics and science, and escalates when they join the workforce and receive discouragement. Only one percent of high-tech startups have a woman CEO; there are almost no women in the ranks of chief technology officers.
I recently attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which had 2150 mostly young women in attendance. This was the largest gathering ever of women in computing in industry, academia, and government. The women discussed topics such as open-source development, computer-language design, and data visualization. And they got a chance to make friends. Many of the women I talked to said this was the first time they had met others like themselves, and they felt really encouraged to continue in computing and to make a difference.
At an executive forum at the conference, I had a chance to discuss, with companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Symantec, the challenges they face in the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women technologists. Their common conclusion was that their company’s success depends on hiring the best talent. They knew, though, that the best talent sometimes was passed over because of unintentional discrimination caused the stereotype that women do not make good techies.
The remedy we discussed was to require that their hiring executives interview at least one woman for every open position. The idea isn’t to hire any candidate less qualified than the best, but to make sure that recruiting efforts include a diverse slate of candidates. In the experience of the company executives, when hiring managers had the chance to meet qualified female candidates, they were more likely to hire women. And to further level the playing field, companies should have at least one woman on the hiring team. People tend to hire those who are similar to them—therefore, the current demographics of the hiring team and company can influence the outcome of hiring.
These are pretty simple remedies. I am not advocating that companies institute any kind of affirmative-action programs or stack the deck against men. But we need to recognize that negative stereotypes such as the ones highlighted in TechCrunch can be harmful and lead to discrimination. Let’s not blame anyone, but let’s act proactively to fix a problem that we all know exists.
Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com.