A month ago, I had coffee with a young female entrepreneur. Near the end of our conversation, I asked her a frank question: "Have you ever experienced sexism from the tech industry?"
What followed was 30 minutes of brutal and uncomfortable stories. Blatant propositions by older men. Bait-and-switch meetings. Condescending behavior that didn't recognize her achievements, talents, or her right to be treated as an equal human being.
Sadly, I've had this conversation with countless women, and every time I come out shocked by the sorts of things men do, both consciously and subconsciously. One friend told me she is marginalized and ignored by software executives during meetings, even when she is the most senior person from her company in attendance. I have another female entrepreneur friend who nearly lost her company because of one investor's obsession with her looks.
Recently, Newsweek's Nina Burleigh wrote a long feature on how women are marginalized in Silicon Valley. It outlines more gut-wrenching stories of how women are being treated in the fastest-growing industry in the 21st century. It reminds us that 96 percent of venture capitalists still are men, and that only a small minority of venture-backed companies have women CEOs, despite the research showing that female-led companies have higher returns on average than male-led ones.
If there's one thing I learned from writing my book Captivology, it's that our subconscious biases have a profound impact on the way we behave and the people who get our attention--in ways that we often are unable or unwilling to admit. In the case of the women in tech problem, past and present research has clearly demonstrated that woman are marginalized in the business world. Male investors simply react differently when pitched by Sam versus Sally.
Despite the overwhelming and indisputable evidence that we have a problem with workplace equality, my gender still finds ways to marginalize the problem. Here's a comment I found on the Hacker News thread about the Newsweek article as an example:
I completely disagree with lines of thought like this. Women are not welcome in the tech industry--not as much as men are. The numbers and research prove it. And while this issue isn't unique to Silicon Valley by a long shot, the tech industry carries a special responsibility because we are supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy--one at the forefront of innovation. Tech is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. It's our responsibility to acknowledge and fix this gender problem because other industries follow our lead, not the other way around.
The Newsweek piece features a company I personally invested in, Glassbreakers, a peer mentorship community for women. I owe much of my success to my mentors Troy Henikoff and Mark Achler. It was easy for me to find mentors as a man. It's much harder for women to find mentors. Men, go ask your female colleague about it. It's a real problem that we never think about. That's why I invested--to solve this problem and give women the support structure they are so painfully lacking.
Men, we need to support companies like Glassbreakers that are providing solutions to the gender problem. And men, we need to stop marginalizing the problem. I'm so sick and tired of men playing down the issue of gender equality in tech and business. I'm sick of hearing stories of female entrepreneurs being faced with overt and covert sexism.
It doesn't have to be this way, if we are honest with ourselves, admit our biases, and roll up our sleeves. Men, we have some work to do.