Silicon Valley Has a Woman Problem, But Women Still Have a Baby Problem

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