Where Are The Women in Tech?

I’m a tax/transactional attorney, and I represent a fair number of young Austin companies and entrepreneurs, with several in the tech industry.  All of my clients are men, and while they are all fantastic clients, entrepreneurs, and just people in general, I totally bothered by the fact that they’re all men. At any Austin technology entrepreneurship event that I attend, the room is filled with men.  I am usually one of a handful of women, if even that.  I know it is like this in other tech hubs as well—I was at a technology investment conference in LA a few months ago, and the scenario was the same: me, and a room full of dudes. While this makes business development fabulously easy for me, I don’t like it and I want to figure out how to encourage girls not only to pursue careers in technology, but also to be leaders in that industry.

I think this is so important because people with skills in programming and other high-tech, computer science- and engineering-related fields are the ones who are shaping our world.  I heard an interview on NPR the other day with Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, and she made the same point. Her big concern is that women are not really part of that process right now because they’re not engaged in pursuing programming, engineering, etc. as a career, and she points to our education system as one of the factors in that (there are obviously others as well).  She is taking actions at Harvey Mudd to address the education component that I thought were very interesting, like changing the structure of their introductory computer science classes to accommodate people who might not have had the pre-college exposure to programming that some of the students (mostly boys) came to college with.

There’s another problem that I see with the Austin tech community that I think is even bigger than the education one, and that is the lack of female mentors. This addresses the other issue that young women in the tech sector still (unbelievably) face, and that is hearing others tell them, although perhaps not directly, that this is a man’s field. Plus, there’s just the intimidation factor of being one of the few women in such a male-dominated space. This is apparent not only in the work space, but also at industry events like the conference I attended. In fact, I was just looking at a picture that someone tweeted from Capital Factory, an Austin-based tech start-up incubator, ahead of Obama’s visit there this afternoon, and I spotted maybe one woman in a SEA of men. This just drove the point home.  I think that establishing a good mentorship program that connects women tech entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs, including (and perhaps most importantly) college and high school women, with female mentors who have already started cutting a path through the tech communities could be encouraging to women in not only pursuing goals of getting a degree in a high-tech field like CS, but also taking the leap and leading a company in that industry if they’re so inclined, so that women are part of the momentum that’s happening in the tech industry.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s the issue of who makes up the partners and investment committees of the venture capital firms and other funding sources to which tech entrepreneurs turn when trying to raise a funding round.  I did a search of about 10 Austin venture firms a while back, and only ONE had any female partners (2 of the 4 partners were women).  The other 9 firms I searched had only male partners and investment committee members.  In the opinion of some, that leads to discrimination against female entrepreneurs (read this article by Vivek Wadhwa: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/03/silicon-valley-discriminates-against-women-even-if-theyre-better.html). I can’t speak to that first hand, since all of my clients are men, but it doesn’t seem farfetched.  Even at the angel investor level, most of the players are men.  I’m not sure what to do about this prong of the problem short of lobbying VC firms to hire more women, but I’m still thinking about this.

So you may be able to see where I’m going with this now. It’s almost a supply-chain issue. We don’t have enough girls pursuing education in high-tech fields, and those that do are up against an extremely male-dominated field where they’re getting messages that it’s not a field for women. Assuming they get the education, then they find themselves in an industry that is entirely dominated by men from the employee level up through the guys who are funding these companies. It’s hard enough to just stay afloat in that environment, much less be a leader in it (i.e., found a company).

I want to put something together at the entrepreneur/investor/mentor level (i.e., women who are already out of school and are working), starting in Austin, that will give these women founders the tools to make their companies work, and then work down from there to university students in high-tech programs (starting with UT), and then hopefully bringing in elementary and secondary education. I would love for my alma mater, Hockaday, to be a part of that process when the time comes, and also the Girls School of Austin and the Ann Richards School.  There are a few female entrepreneur/female mentor programs out there (Women 2.0 comes to mind), but they only try to fix the problem at the entrepreneur/company level.  That is obviously important, but I think coming up with something that is more vertically integrated with education all the way down to the beginning—somewhere in elementary school perhaps— and certainly something that’s more local, could have a potent impact on the issue.

I just think it’s so important that women be part of this technology process that’s shaping our lives, but I see the barriers. I want to figure out a way to move them. If you have thoughts, ideas, want to help, please drop a line.

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