Good question. Here's how one Silicon Valley insider is trying to find the answer
Vivek Wadhwa, academic and author
Male academics don’t inspire female innovators. Female innovators inspire female innovators. So when Vivek Wadhwa sought to highlight women’s struggles and achievements in the innovation economy, he teamed with journalist Farai Chideya to solicit stories from women around the world. Wadhwa, whose CV includes Stanford, Duke, and Singularity University, took a break from editing the book to discuss the project with editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.
Why this topic?
After coming to Silicon Valley from North Carolina a few years ago, my wife made me realize something strange. You don’t see women here at tech conferences. You don’t see women on the boards of tech companies. You don’t see women CTOs.When it comes to the workplace, women aren’t there. It’s like the Twilight Zone.
So I started researching the causes of the problem and speaking out about it. And the more I spoke, the more attacks I endured from the Silicon Valley elite. I said, Aha! This is the root of the problem.
Why did you decide to crowdsource the book?
I started a major research project at Stanford [on women and technology], which we are wrapping up right now. But academic papers have to be boring. I said, Let’s do a book about this issue where I can express all the opinions I want. But it doesn’t make sense for a guy to tell women how to fix their problems.
I used my private mailing list, hoping I would get women to help me spread the word. My goal was to get 30 to 50 women to tell their stories. I ended up with more than 500. I also crowdfunded this, so it wouldn’t be just my project. I wanted to raise $40,000. I got $96,000.
Which stories, in particular, impressed you?
The stories are all amazing. You see how from the time they are young, women are not encouraged to take on hard mathematical tasks or to do world-changing innovation. They are discouraged in school and then in college and then they join the work force and find they are the only female engineer in the department or the whole company. And they get treated differently. Every woman who contributed told us about a hardship and how she got over it.
In your experience, do men and women innovate differently?
Women are more sensible in the businesses they start. They are not going to ask for a gazillion dollars from a venture capitalist for some harebrained scheme to do yet another photo-sharing app. They focus on the practical. Which also means their companies are initially smaller than the guys’ companies. Which is OK. They have lower failure rates. I like those companies better.
Much of innovation involves teamwork. Does that help women--because they are naturally more collaborative--or hurt them, because the men in the group may be more assertive?
Women benefit from being more collaborative. They generally talk a lot more about their partners and the support that they got and mentorship. They value teamwork more than the guys do. But the guys can hold them back.
What do you hope female readers will take from these stories?
Women face the same problems everywhere, but they think they are alone. Reading the stories of how other women surmounted their difficulties is going to provide inspiration. I have no doubt about that.
What about male readers?
I think the majority of readers will be women.
IMAGE: Corbis (men in office); Ian Allen (Wadhwa)
From the Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014 issue of Inc. magazine
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan