When, exactly, do we say a woman has succeeded at raising venture capital?

This may seem like a simple question. If her company gets a venture investment, she's succeeded. If there isn't an investment, she's failed.

Of course, it's a little more complicated. These complexities are highlighted in a new study of women and venture capital recently released by TechCrunch.

TechCrunch found that 12 percent of venture rounds and 10 percent of venture dollars, globally, went to a startup with at least one woman founder between 2010 and 2015.

The Diana Project, a research group based at Babson University, looked at a wider variety of investments, including later-stage VC, and found that in 2013, 18 percent of venture rounds went to startups with one female founder.

Having a woman on the founding team has become quite a common metric for assessing the success (or otherwise) of women in raising venture capital. It's common to hear that "X amount of venture capital goes to women," and most of the time, whether or not the speaker knows it, that's actually the percentage of venture capital that goes to founding teams that include at least one woman.

TechCrunch and other researchers are perfectly clear about this, but by the time the information gets widely disseminated, it's often a bit more blurry. It becomes "venture capital going to women," not "venture capital going to teams that include at least one woman."

The U.S. Census has three categories for businesses: those owned by women, those owned by men, and those that are equally-owned. I'm not expecting TechCrunch, or the folks at the Diana Project, to be the Census. But we really don't know that the 12 percent of venture capital attributed to women in these studies was actually raised by them.

Obviously, some number of teams were probably all-female, and some number of sole women founders also raised money. But for the most part, these teams include men. So who, really, raised the money? On the one hand, everybody. In that case, we could just as well say the money went to men as to women. It's quite a presumption to think that the female members of the team had more to do with the fundraising than the men did. Could the man or men on the team have raised the money perfectly well without their female counterpart(s)? More to the point, could the women on the team have managed to get VC money without the men?

This 12 percent of venture capital isn't money that's going to women. It's going to mixed-gender teams. There is nothing at all wrong with that; most would say it's a step in the right direction. But we still don't know how much money is going to women. 

TechCrunch does not appear to have measured the percentage of venture capital rounds that went to startups in which a woman is CEO. The Diana Project found that the number of venture rounds going to female CEOs was a paltry 2.7 percent.

There are good reasons to look at this the way TechCrunch did. At many startups, no one has the CEO title at the beginning. Many startups hold off on assigning a CEO title until the company is more mature, making everyone a co-founder in the meantime.

But the other side effect of looking at women CEOs, as the Diana Project and Female Founders Fund do, is that the percentage of venture capital investment that appears to go to women is going to fall off a cliff.

The Influence of Female Venture Capitalists

TechCrunch also looked at the percentage of women who are investing partners at venture capital firms. They tried to ensure that those with the word "partner" in their titles are actually responsible for investing the firm's money--something that is not always the case. They found that seven percent of investing partners in the top 100 venture capital firms are women.

TechCrunch didn't find that having a single female investing partner made a firm any more likely to invest in women, which is hardly surprising. Research shows that women don't generally make much of an impact in an all-male environment, such as a corporate board, until there are at least three of them. So a single female investing partner is unlikely to sway her firm in one direction or another. 

Which are the firms that are most likely to have a higher percentage of female investing partners? Those founded by women. And those firms, according to TechCrunch, do seem to invest in more mixed-gender teams. How much they actually invest in women, we've yet to discover.