It's well established that women get a small fraction of the venture capital allocated to men. Despite heightened attention to the problem in recent years, the newest data suggests the problem could actually be getting worse. But the investors and experts closest to the problem see a somewhat more nuanced picture -- one that could give hope to women entrepreneurs looking to raise money and help them devise a strategy for where to pitch next.

In 2013, Babson's Diana Project reported that companies with female CEOs get only 2.7 percent of venture money, and those with a woman on the founding team get 18 percent of venture deals. According to Crunchbase, the latter number has fallen off a cliff in the past few years--to just 10 percent at the end of 2017's third quarter.

Pitchbook came out with its own numbers last month, which showed 12 percent of venture dollars went to companies with a woman on the founding team. But Pitchbook said it couldn't identify the genders of the founding team members of 7 percent of companies, leaving a somewhat wide margin of error.

There are a number of possible explanations for these discouraging numbers. Some have suggested that a few big deals might be skewing the numbers, making Babson's look artificially high. That's not likely, though, because the Babson numbers cited above are for the number of deals that included women, not the number of dollars. Instead, it could very well be that, relatively speaking, small and mid-size venture capital firms are investing in quite a few women while the largest firms are investing in hardly any women at all.

"When I talk to mid-size [venture] firms, they're interested in diversity, partly because they need to have a differentiating factor. They're not Sequoia with LP's banging down their door," says Ruta Aidis, the research lead for Gender Metrics and a senior fellow with the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Drawing from her conversations with venture firms rather than any systematic data set, she posits that smaller firms are doing more to invest in women than the larger ones. "We've got to get the big players on board," Aidis says.

"There are firms that do get this," says Sharon Vosmek, the CEO of Astia, an organization that works to ensure the success of high-growth startups founded and led by women. She's also one of the founding members of Astia Angels, which invests in women entrepreneurs globally. "But it's not the biggest firms."

Anu Duggal, founding partner of Female Founders Fund, points out that the smaller funds tend to be newer, and newer funds tend to have more diverse management teams, which may mean they also invest in a more diverse range of founders. "The funds that are newer to the market tend to be more reflective of what's in the landscape in terms of people who are investing and also starting companies," says Duggal.

Why methodology matters.

When the Diana Project researchers set out to count the number of women-led deals, they started with a database of 6,793 companies that had received venture capital. Crunchbase, by contrast, looked at what it calls the top 100 venture firms. That list represents "the more active firms that are leading early-stage venture rounds," says Crunchbase. Crunchbase also notes that "the majority of these firms operate outside of the U.S." The investing partnerships at those firms are overwhelmingly male: Only 10 have two or more female investing partners.

The firms that invest most actively in women, by contrast, are often founded by women, include an above-average number of female investing partners, or are looking to invest in companies with a social impact. Pitchbook put together a list of the venture firms that are most likely to invest in women, and not surprisingly, firms such as BBG Ventures and Female Founders Fund--founded by women, to invest in women--come out at the top. Still scoring well on Pitchbook's list, with at least 40 percent of their deals in teams with gender-diverse leadership, are firms such as Better Ventures, which is mission-driven, Fresco Capital, which was co-founded by a woman, and DBL Partners, a social impact fund founded by women. Silicon Valley's largest funds don't appear.

Women who invest in women differ when asked when they see improvement since 2013.

Vosmek says Ellen Pao's unsuccessful sexual harassment lawsuit against the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers had a chilling effect, subtly encouraging male investors to stay away from women-led companies. "We're now leveling out to pre-Ellen Pao numbers," she says.

Sutian Dong, a partner at Female Founders Fund, is more optimistic. "From what we've seen, it's certainly gone up," she says, "and we invest at the seed and Series A stage." Her colleague Duggal says that dynamic is being carried upstream: "We've had few [female] founders recently go out and raise large Series B, C, D, rounds, and they've been very clear: They want to work with funds that are diverse. That's not where we were five years ago."

"I feel really hopeful that we're in this moment of change," says Jenny Abramson, founder of Rethink Impact, the largest social impact venture capital fund that also invests solely in gender-diverse teams. "The fact that women will control two-thirds of the wealth in this country by 2030 sets up a dynamic that changes where this can go."

Published on: Apr 3, 2018