Women Entrepreneurs Underrepresented In High-Tech Startups?

What do women venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and founders think is the reason why women are underrepresented in high-tech startups? Let's take a look.

There are many meetings in Silicon Valley about innovation, technology, start-ups, and entrepreneurs. If one of the panelists or speakers is a woman, inevitably someone asks the question why there aren’t more women founders or more startup women in technology and science. While the number of women small business owners is more than 50 percent, the number of women founders of hi-tech startups is in the low single digits. What makes the hi-tech industry different?

Many studies have calculated the numbers and percentages on this subject, but facts don’t tell the stories or give insightful reasons. Thinking back on numerous startup companies I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with, only two percent to seven percent of the technical staff were women – none had a woman as CTO, CSO, CIO, or Vice President of Engineering. Yet one CEO asked me one day why his start-up of 350 people couldn’t seem to attract more women engineers and programmers. It was great that he thought enough to ask the question, but his entire senior staff was men. I go to a lot of meetings whose target attendees are founders of startups. More often than not, I am one of only a couple of women in the meeting.

So what do women venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and founders think is the reason why there are so few women starting high tech companies, and how do they think men are different than women who start hi-tech industries? Below are some comments they’ve made when asked these questions.

1. [Venture Capitalist] Women don’t ask for the money.
2. [Venture Capitalist] Women undersell themselves
3. [Venture Capitalist] Men dream big and propose businesses in the largest markets; women think much smaller.
4. [Venture Capitalist] Men ask companies and partners for much more free equipment, software, and support than do women. A Microsoft® BizSpark evangelist said men always ask how much they can get from the program and still try to ask for more than the program offers; women wait for them to disclose what they can get and don’t push to get as much as they can.
5. [Founder] As to why there are fewer women who start hi-tech companies than men, one observer said that would-be founders catch the entrepreneurial bug at about the same age women think about starting a family.
6. [Founders] Even though this woman CEO had taken two companies public, she felt she didn’t get as much respect as she should from venture capitalists because she had a sales background and not a technical one. Another CEO said that, with her second startup, the venture capitalist insisted upon a co-CEO who was a man, despite the fact she had taken her first company public and she had been running this second start for a couple years.
7. [Founder] Several women CEOs said investors asked if they had children and how they planned on managing the family and the fledging startup at the same time. While they weren’t insulted by the question, they felt the same question would not be asked of men, because it is assumed that their wives will manage the family affairs so the husband can devote all his energy to the start-up.
8. [Senior Executive] A woman COO observed that most of her female MBA classmates had left the job market after starting families. This COO noted a study that stated, after children the average man still worked 40 hour weeks and took little responsibility for childcare while the average woman worked 40 hours and was the principal caretaker of children. After the arrival of children, the mother ended up with two jobs and the father still only had one.
9. [Founder] Women ask for directions. Women more readily seek out answers or advice. Women build the contacts to help them further the company in the future. Men don’t ask for directions. Men want to connect with people who can help them either today and tomorrow, not in the future.
10. [Academic Researcher] Women tended to start their companies from their home, while men tend to get an office immediately.
11. [Executive Speech Coach] When giving presentations about their startups, everyone needs to be convincing. The listener keys on the non-verbal signals sent by the speaker. When observing their presentations meant to convince the audience, women non-verbally beg, whereas men demand.
12. [Founder] If someone asks a woman executive or founder for help making an introduction or directing you to another person, a woman almost always will assist with the request, but men are not likely to help.

One of the most important criteria for an investor to fund a startup is the team. The more senior positions a team member has held, the more credibility the team has in the eyes of the potential investors. Women are common in the entry to mid level ranks of a corporation, but few women have the right credentials to get funded. Becoming a women entrepreneur and starting a company is often the mid-point in a person’s career, maybe the part of the answer lies much earlier in the process.

There are many programs to encourage young women to enter fields of science and technology, but look at the number of women in senior technical positions. In 1989, only 15 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women and 39 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in science were to women. These are the women that should be seen in senior management positions today. Delving into the companies listed on a 2010 Forbes’ Top 25 Hottest Tech Stocks, the statistics gathered on senior management teams showed no woman held the CEO position, 13 percent of the senior managers were women, and 1.9 percent of the women senior managers held a technical position. And while one can suppose that 25 tech companies will only have 25 senior technical positions, that’s not true. Many of these companies have multiple senior technical positions but virtue of the fact that they are “tech” companies. Business Insider’s list of the 40 Hot Start-ups in Silicon Valley and New York City a few years ago showed 87 founders, of which only three were women, and 36 of the 40 startups were investor-backed companies – even a start-up focusing on women’s fashion was co-founded by three men. Founders of hi-tech companies often have technical backgrounds.

Most women who hold senior management positions have come from sales, marketing, finance, legal, or human resources; they rarely come from engineering or product development areas. How many women hold the position of Chief Science Officer (CSO), Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Vice President of Engineering, or Vice President of Research and Development? Not many. Women CEOs and founders tend to be from marketing and sales backgrounds.

Most venture capitalists admit that startup investment is a high touch, personal business – investors fund people they like and everyone likes people like themselves. A recent survey showed that 70 percent of women funded by venture capitalists were funded by firms with at least one woman partner. There is a Silicon Valley angel investor group with 139 angel investors, all about the same age. Only three are women.

The investment community isn’t going to change in the short-term. All women entrepreneurs need to figure out how this community operates and work within the framework of the system to achieve their aspirations.

Cynthia-Kocialski_558930Cynthia Kocialski has founded three companies and has been actively involved in more than 25 hi-tech start-ups and has served on the advisory boards. She is active in several start-up organizations such as the Venture Capital Task Force, Silicon Valley Association of Start-Up Entrepreneurs, SD Forum, and the Churchill Club. Cynthia has seen what works, what doesn’t work, and much of the day-to-day humor that happens in these start-up companies. Cynthia writes a blog,, on about life, humor and lessons from her experience in high tech start-ups.

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