Women in the Tech World: Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don't (So You Might As Well Do)

 In case you needed a reminder that ventures traditionally associated with women are inherently inferior to things that are manly and such, tech reporter Jolie O’Dell is happy to remind you via Twitter.

Women: Stop making startups about fashion, shopping, & babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.

After a few of her followers call her to task, she eventually backs down to “there’s a glut of them & it bothers me” and “[a]ll the DEMO female-led companies are one of those three niches. I was disappointed, clearly.” But ultimately, she arrives at the classic girl-stuff burial ground: Girl stuff is stupid because it’s pointless, because it’s girl stuff.

Because I refuse to believe those smart, talented women are making the best use of their time & skills to change the world.

(Background: O’Dell made her comments in regard to DEMO 2011, a tech conference with some amount of focus on emerging tech and entrepreneurship–lots of pitches, presentations, and demonstrations. In her 140-word tweets, she doesn’t get around to mentioning exactly which girly startups she found so offensive, so one can only speculate.)

I get where she’s coming from, almost. A little. In the business world, where women still struggle for acceptance and recognition, it can be jarring to see women make it to the big show and start talking about shoes and diapers. It’s not an image some women want to see promoted. But O’Dell’s complaint has nothing to do with female business founders flashing cleavage or tittering through demos–they’re giving women a bad image simply by offering products of a traditionally female nature.

(As many of O’Dell’s Twitter responders pointed out, as well as many of the women surveyed by post author J. Maureen Henderson, the founders of ZapposBluefly, and Diapers.com also spend a lot of time talking about shoes and diapers. They can get away with it, though, because apparently it’s okay if you’re a guy.)

The best use of a woman’s “time & skills,” it’s implied, is non-girly stuff. Commerce, parenting–these things are women’s concerns, frivolous and meaningless. We’re held to the standard of world-changing. O’Dell never really gives us examples of what she does consider a worthy such pursuit, outside of GitHub and Kiva, but since she doesn’t criticize any of the male business founders for presenting not one but two services helping you find the right wine, or the guy who made a robot that dances to your iPod, her standards for startups that “change the world” seem rather obscure. It’s not really a matter of changing the world, or of business savvy or market saturation–it’s a matter of a shameful aspect of female-ness that O’Dell would rather not intrude on the business world.

Starting a business requires an investment of time, energy, money, and focus that can only really be directed at something that interests and inspires. O’Dell seems to have been exaggerating a bit in her tweets, considering the number of women-driven launches and demos that fell outside of that forbidden category. (She seems to have missedBringShare, a tool to help small businesses track and evaluate their online marketing efforts; and Stroome, a cloud-based platform that allows journalists, filmmakers, and others to collaboratively edit and share video online.) But if what engages a woman really is shopping, or motherhood, or gardening or cupcakes, telling her she should be pursuing something more serious and man-approved leaves her to a) devote her resources to something she doesn’t necessarily care about or understand, or b) remove herself from the market entirely.

There’s also the fact that so many businesses got their start as a way to address specific needs. Zappos got its start when founder Nick Swinmurn couldn’t find brown Airwalks at the mall. Diapers.com was started by two dads struggling to keep up with diaper demands in their young households. Memetales, launched at this past DEMO, is headed by CEO Maya Bisineer, a developer and mother who wanted to make engaging children’s books easily available to kids. Dismissing a woman’s work to address her needs is in the direction of dismissing her needs. Whether the needs are to find a book your kid will read, to find a cheaper or quicker way to buy clothes, or just to capitalize on a talent or an activity that interests you, the message is, Don’t waste your time on that. What’s important to you isn’t important. Do things that are important to other people.

Seeing more female-lead startups in male-dominated fields would be awesome. It’s on the list of other things to work toward: Getting more girls and women interested in tech fields. Gaining widespread recognition for women already in tech fields. Supporting women in all areas of the workplace, top to bottom. Helping more women into C-level positions, and then helping them help other women up behind them. And, yeah, giving interested women the opportunities for entrepreneurship that have traditionally been the territory of men. No business exists in a vacuum, of course, and certainly no business venture is completely beyond criticism, but when we’re trying to encourage entrepreneurship among women, it’s disingenuous to then say, “Wait! Stop! We didn’t mean that kind of entrepreneurship. That kind is embarrassing and not okay.”

Here’s what’s not okay: According to the Center for Venture Research’s annual report on the “angel investor” market, in 2010, women-owned ventures accounted for 21 percent of applications for angel capital, and that 13 percent of them received it–five percent below the overall rate. Facebook’s top female executive both preaches and practices the importance of supporting other women–but also criticizes women for asking “girl questions” about, say, finding a mentor, and suggests that the glass ceiling will go away if we don’t believe in it, that what we see as sexism is just women not being assertive enough. And a woman in the tech industry goes to a conference and sees woman after woman presenting startups–and her only contribution is to criticize them for being girly. That’s pretty embarrassing to me. I’m embarrassed for her.

It’s not a zero-sum game–encouraging women as they enter into male-dominated fields doesn’t require cutting other women down. A world where women can lead tech businesses requires a) a world where women own businesses, and b) a world where women lead in tech. It takes both.Creating an environment in which women are supported in their entrepreneurial efforts sends a message to all women with entrepreneurial tendencies, whether Mommy or manly, that there is a place for them in startups. Today’s girls startup could be tomorrow’s CEO and angel investor, helping yet another woman get her startup off the ground.

Well, okay, not tomorrow. At some point in the next few years. Whenever it’s okay with Jolie O’Dell.

For those interested: Fast Company’s Allyson Kapin offers a list of 25 women-run startups to watch, with a bonus list of organizations supporting female entrepreneurs.


Feministe / By Capleton

Posted at September 20, 2011, 3:19am

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