Silicon Valley’s gender problem boils down to babies — as in, those who have them can’t be a startup CEO too. We live in a society where women shoulder the burden of raising children, and until we change that we can’t change the workforce.

A post yesterday on TechCrunch did a wonderful job of illustrating how many more men than women there are in the U.S. venture capital industry — and how that imbalance extends to tech entrepreneurs. It also extrapolated a rationalization for this gap that, while reasonable, was incorrect. Silicon Valley’s gender problem isn’t that complicated — it boils down to babies. As in, those who have them can’t be a startup CEO, too.

Vivek Wadhwa, the author of the TechCrunch post, included a nice list of reasons why women entrepreneurs and women-led venture-backed companies are scarce:

Sharon Vosmek, CEO of venture accelerator Astia doesn’t think that VCs have an overt bias against women. Instead, it’s the way the venture-capital industry operates. Vosmek says that these “systematic or hidden biases” include:

1. that VCs hold clear stereotypes of successful CEOs (they call it pattern recognition, but in other industries they call it profiling or stereotyping.) John Doerr publicly stated that his most successful investments – and the no-brainer pattern for future investments – were in founders who were white, male, under 30, nerds, with no social life who dropped out of Harvard or Stanford (2009 NVCA conference).

2. VCs invest in people they know. If women aren’t in their natural networks, they won’t get through the door. We know that still today, men and women network in separate business networks.

3. VCs want to invest in serial entrepreneurs. (This further reduces the chance for woman entrepreneurs.)

4. The VC community is obviously male dominated, and it just got worse…after the cold freeze VCs experienced over the past 24 months, many women partners exited the industry. As the Diana Project research shows, a firm with women General Partners is more likely to invest in women entrepreneurs.

However, it was a comment from TechCrunch reader Chem that actually laid bare the issue of why women aren’t better represented in tech — essentially, it’s because women have babies, and the perception is that when we do, we leave the workforce to take care of them. And while Chem’s stereotype isn’t correct ( I was back at work and even took on a more demanding job soon after my daughter was born), the fact that women are “supposed” to bear the brunt of raising children is a huge reason why women aren’t more visible at the helm of venture-backed startups. It’s the babies, stupid.

Or rather, it’s the idea that women should shoulder the burden of raising children, an idea that dominates our society to such a degree that many women and men buy into it without question. Society at large explicitly perpetuates motherhood and not parenthood (check out the New York Times, from stories that demand mothers learn how to speak nanny, to the spate of “wow-men-are-now-staying-at-home” stories), and implicitly enforces the status quo through its policies around access to childcare for babies, school calendars and thousands of other complicating factors that any family, be they dual-income or single-parent, must navigate.

And when that navigation does require a trade-off, it’s generally still the mother that makes it. Which means that yes, once women have babies there are forces that can keep them from taking on a 90-hour-a-week startup gig. We can bemoan a scarcity of female role models in tech, entice women into the math and science professions or even blame women who leave the work force to take care of kids for the lack of gender diversity, but to fix the problem, we’re going to have to discuss the lack of parity between men and women when it comes to raising children.

Because Wadhwa is right: Gender diversity is important, and women shouldn’t have to choose between raising a family and building a startup any more than men should.

Image courtesy of Flickr user anonymous to you

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  1. Amen. Like any good business, divy up the responsibilities and accountability. Even in a same-sex parenting situation, the same rules apply – share and share alike.

  2. I completely agree that this issue is a big deal. After all, how can we claim to be an industry based in meritocracy when worrying symptoms (like this) appear to cast it into doubt. What are the odds that the best and brightest entrepreneurs all happen to look almost exactly the same? In other words, diversity is the “canary in the coal mine” for meritocracy.

    On the issue of the burden of raising kids, I think these stereotypes are damaging for both men and women. In fact, many families are making an economic mistake by failing to invest in both parents’ career. It may seem more expensive in the short term to invest in quality daycare etc, but the opportunity cost can be steep in terms of future lost earnings. On a society-wide level, we all lose out when talented and creative potential entrepreneurs are excluded.

    For more on this, I recommend “Getting to 50/50″ http://bit.ly/GT5050

    (For the record, I’m a married man without kids. I just think our industry’s behavior represents a big lost opportunity.)

    1. Stacey Higginbotham Eric Ries Monday, February 8, 2010

      Eric, thanks for the book recommendation. I think your comment about investing in both parents’ careers is right on. And I think both parents win on the home front when they take equal responsibility for the home and child rearing. Plus, it gives both men and women insights into building products or serving professional and consumer markets.

  3. website builder Monday, February 8, 2010

    Children need their mother’s nurturing they don’t need another startup. Why can’t our culture accept the value of each parent’s roll and accept them for what they are? Why do women need to feel like they should do everything men do? Why can’t we embrace the differences? Again – there is not startup that’s more important than the nurturing a child needs from his or her mother.

    1. Is a startup more important than a nurturing father? The question of the relationship between work and raising children is entirely different than the question of who should be doing the raising. Kids benefit from having both parents involved in their lives. If you’re going to go that route, why not ask why society holds fatherhood in such low esteem?

  4. I certainly agree that gender diversity is extremely important, and that women in the workforce are every wit as capable, talented, and creative as men. Along that same vein, however, is the the importance of gender diversity in the home. A man should equally share the responsibility for raising children in the home, but it is a proven fact that women are far more adept at providing the nurturing, caring role that children need. Without adequate influence from a mother, a child has less of a chance at a good life than a child who had the full attention of its mother. And what’s more important: a VC investment or a child’s life?

    1. Anysia (Booklorn on Twitter) Joshua Monday, February 8, 2010

      You state:

      “it is a proven fact that women are far more adept at providing the nurturing, caring role that children need.”

      Please provide a reference to supporting research for the rest of us.

    2. If you have any research to back these claims up, perhaps women have been found “more adept” at nurturing simply because men aren’t under the same pressure to excel at raising children. This is the heart of the problem. If men saw childcare as their natural role as well, they’d be better at it, responsibilities at home would be split more evenly and this would be reflected in the workplace.

  5. Melody McCloskey Monday, February 8, 2010

    Great piece. In my opinion there are major factors that cause fewer women to start companies at all (funded or un-funded) before women hit the baby-making stage of their life.

    For example very few women are becoming programmers in the first place, which goes back to high school. Seems like there’s a big opportunity for organizations to identify these factors and help reverse these stats since gender diversity is hugely important to building better products.

  6. I agree and disagree. I think we need to nurture women entrepreneurs starting in high school and college, then by the time they are 30-35, they have either cashed out of their first business, or had kids and laid low as a programmer/creator until they got older, then decided to start a business and engaged the kids as much as they wanted, a tech family business as it were. If we want to stay competitive, we need to be able to bear children and companies. After all, who’s to say that some of these women who choose to stay home with kids aren’t nurturing the next entrepreneurs of both sexes and will end up still reaping the benefits indirectly(name still on company, contribute ideas once in a while) and be happy with that. What about husband/wife tech entrepreneur teams.

  7. Carla Thompson Monday, February 8, 2010

    Oh how I could – and probably will – write a book about this subject. Joshua’s comments below are the heart of the problem. As long as a good-sized portion of the population, both male and female, believe that women are the only gender genetically predisposed to adequately nurturing and raising children, this problem will persist.

    The insidious part of the argument is the implication that women are actually harming their children by pursuing careers, as Joshua states (and yes, I too would like proof of your argument). It’s an argument that has been so effective that it’s roped women into going along with it.

    I’m going to stop typing now so I won’t hijack your post. But you hit several nails square on the head with this. And I plan to pick up the meme myself. ; )

    1. Carla, I’d love a book on this topic, or even more data. Entrepreneurship manifests itself in so many different ways and I think it will become more common across all genders, races and age levels. Figuring out how to ensure that everyone has the support network and ability to create a business is important for innovation, wealth creation and even our health as a country. Cutting out half the population or limiting it to one type of entrepreneurial activity because they can have children is short-sighted.

      1. Stacey,

        Perhaps this is familiar and perahps not:

        Try dating super-achieving career women and you’ll see that a lot of them harbor a major conflict between their desire for maintaining a very demanding career (surgeon, CEO, etc) and having to settle for a non-alpha male, who makes less than she does and will actually share the burdens of the boring stuff, as is the stated desired outcome in this article: Childcare, dishes, etc, leading to 50/50.

        Until you’ve experienced the seething resentment of a career woman who hates you for being what she claims she wanted (helpful, supportive, etc) then you haven’t fully explored this problem…

        Sad but true, a lot of women divorce or leave men that ARE the ideal of supportive, helpful and caring, because these men are not as exciting or high-achieving as they’re supposed to be in the superwoman’s fantasy of an alpha-male achiever, you know, the one who doesn’t mind doing the 50/50 thing when it’s her career that comes first, but simultaneously has his own money and career stuff in turbo mode.

        Ladies, reconcile (or at least acknowledge and explore) your own conflict about this issue, or you’re surely running into a brick wall of misery for you and your man, whom you will unceremoniously dump or drive away with your impossible expectations.

        It’s not that (just) that good men aren’t out there who do what it takes to get to 50/50, they are out there, more and more. It’s also the fact that women often mistake these men for suckers/betas and kick the men out of their lives for being liberated men.

    2. I’d look forward to that book (or data) too..I’d actually like to know how many women (in the western world) actually want to become tech entrepreneurs, knowing what it takes to be one.

      I’m sure one can rattle off a handful of examples of nerd gals out there, but if there would be a survey of (for example) high school students, what would be the ratio of boys vs girls who would want to get into the tech industry – and have the interest, perseverance, determination to do so..(Note that I’m not including ability or creativity or intelligence in this list).

      If you think I’m gender biased, let me come clean. No, I’m not. I’m hinting at a possible root cause that goes deeper than child bearing. Babies probably come on the agenda later (both chronologically and priority-wise) for the career minded woman. The key question is : Does our society encourage enough women to become tech-career-minded in the first place? Or, what needs to be done to make this happen?

      1. Stacey Higginbotham Cheese Tuesday, February 9, 2010

        I think that’s certainly a key issue and gets deeper into the sexualization of girls (and women) and what is perceived as attractive. Although thanks to pink microscopes and telescopes, now girls can be nerds just like the guys. Sigh. http://contexts.org/socimages/2009/12/29/girls-need-less-power/

  8. Startups won’t need 90h/week forever. You’re supposed to start being profitable or get some VC and hire some people. And women can just delay motherhood until the startup has other people to delegate to.
    At least that’s how see it.
    Or does founding a startup compel people to have kids?

    @website_builder women may want to do startup just because that’s what they want to do. Startup founders are generally in their twenties, it’s not like they can’t wait a few years to have kids.

    Now, VC bias is a huge barrier to entry, if they won’t get out of their comfort zone women are out of the picture through no fault of their own.

    1. They’d better not NEED 90h/week very often, and in small, carefully calibrated bursts when they do. Studies going back (at least) to the ’80s point out that people always make better decisions when they’ve had a good night’s sleep and decent food. Entrepreneurs — overwhelmingly Doerr’s young, white male semi-disciplined workaholics — too often don’t figure that out until their body and/or marriage has suffered catastrophic failure. I had a stroke at 32 after working 70 continuous hours; we shipped, but I spent six months in and out of hospital. “Work smart, not hard” isn’t a goal, it’s an imperative.

  9. Leigh Anne Varney Monday, February 8, 2010

    The headline is a grabber but a baby is not a problem. American society is the problem. If you are naive enough to approach the enormous role of parenting from the negative, you are doomed from the start. This mixed-message situation is way more complex for both men & women who want to spend TIME with their children. And let’s face it, time is what it takes. Tons of it.
    Societal expectations– let alone corporate/biz/VC biases- are impossible to break here in America. In Europe, they seem to have it together. Meaning: a safety net. There is no support system for parents here in the US of A. It’s an either/or situation. I’ve lived it for 19 years (am the single Mom of two teens) and I am sad to say companies and investors are still only paying lip service to creating a more ecumenical environment. Imagine all the wasted creativity and talent because for women, there really is no choice. If you’re lucky, you’re able to carve out a niche that gives you flexibility. Thank God for high tech! But compared to all the Big Dreams we women have about wanting to chart our OWN achievements (in addition to mommyhood), it remains elusive.

    1. I think we’re on the same page here. The lack of a safety net stems from our society’s inability/unwllingness to accommodate dual-income parents and single-parents. Moms bear the brunt of that lack of safety net because they bear the brunt of child rearing.

    2. Your point certainly makes sense, given all those successful European tech startups led by mothers. It must be American society that is the problem :)

      1. Folks, if anything, it’s WORSE in Asia. I’ve dealt with startups in Vietnam, China, Malaysia, India and Singapore, and the “pattern recognition” gets progressively worse along that list. I just asked two Singaporean Chinese tech-entrepreneur friends of mine if they knew of any of their peers who were women or non-Chinese (as is a third or so of Singapore). One response summed up my observation perfectly: “Why would anyone try? Nobody would want to deal with them.” We’re still waiting for the South Asian Susan B Anthony or Martin Luther King. Maybe next millennium — but I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

      2. Jeff, get your facts straight. Singapore is not in South Asia. And the South Asian MLK was er, Gandhi, who influenced MLK quite a bit.

      3. @Jeff
        To an extent, it is true that freedom, empowerment and social-acceptance of women in high-tech business is less compared to say Silicon Valley, but you need to expand your friend-circle for sure. There are several startups in India that were founded and currently run by women CEOs. Also, women entrepreneur in traditional industry (not high-tech) has been fairly well accepted in large parts of India. The problem as I see it, is a worldwide mindset, which is more deeply ingrained in this region, and that is women are naturally better in bringing up children. Probably being a male, it is hard to believe otherwise. At the cost of sounding orthodox, my point is — it is going to be very difficult to prove that nature did not mean to make women better equipped in bringing up children, and this extends well beyond the human race.

        Of course, there are families s.a. in case of same-sex marriages, single parents where a child is brought up by the father, and it is hard to tell if they don’t do a good job of that.

        At the end of the day, there are a multitude of ventures who didn’t need a penny of VC funding, yet were high-technology companies. Also we have ample example of women CEOs who are also mothers. It is a simple matter of making a choice.

      4. @Las Madras – geographically, it’s Southeast Asia, but if you’ve ever lived in this part of the world for a while, you’d certainly have noticed that most SEA countries are either “more east than south” or “more south than east” from a cultural perspective. Having lived in a half-dozen such countries and visited a dozen more, I can assure you that Singapore is firmly in the latter group.

  10. Nikki Selene Lamagna Monday, February 8, 2010

    I find comments like the one about women are more adept at raising children to be adolescent and trite. It is another stereotype that has been brought into this debate numerous times that offers no real value. It’s a dodge-and-cover argument that fails to see the underlying issue. And, if it were a valid argument, why isn’t motherhood given the same praise and recognition as starting a business venture?

    And it really irks me when I see comments asking why women should try to do all the things men do. We are not trying to do what men do; we are trying to have equality where there hasn’t been for a very long time. Just in the same respect of stay-at-home dads, as Stacey pointed out in her article, there’s inequality. So what, a man stayed home to take care of the kids. Again, Stacey pointed out how this invariably and implicitly keeps the status quo.

    Yes, men and women do things differently. We have different values. But that is not a specifically gendered trait – I know just as many tough-as-nails women as I do effeminate men (which I hate giving labels to them because they are just who they are). We’ve got to step away in seeing this issue with such polarizing lens.

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