So we’re going to put two and two together here, draw on some other stuff, come up with five. Or maybe three. Who knows. It’s all about the math. Or maybe not. But it’s important. There’s even a treat at the end.
Last week, the San Jose Mercury — located as it is in the heart of Silicon Valley — had a front page biz story on the lack of the XX chromosome in the tech field. Specifically, when it comes to being an entrepreneur. Reporter Scott Duke Harris starts by recalling meeting Jessica Mah, a 17 year old whiz-girl at a TechCrunch gathering three years ago. When she was 13, she had started a Web-hosting service. (Hello, I’m not ever sure what that means.) Now she’s 20, and she has a degree in computer science from UC-Berkeley, has funding from a start-up incubator, and is co founder of a Web-based money management service for small businesses. And what she tells Harris is that despite the fact that her business is doing well, she wonders whether she is a good entrepreneur — or she is benefiting from a good market. WTF. She’s 20 years old. About the same age as that other kid was when he started Facebook.
Let’s read what Harris has to say:
Today, I have another notion about my initial skepticism: Gender profiling. If this had been a geek named Jesse, not Jessica, maybe I’d be wondering if this kid might be the next Zuckerberg, instead of wondering whether to take him seriously.
With former Silicon Valley CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina now running self-financed campaigns for higher office and Carol Bartz leading Yahoo, there is less talk today about the “glass ceiling.” But they prospered on the executive track, not as entrepreneurs. While dozens of valley startups have been launched by women — Judy Estrin, Kim Polese and Caterina Fake come to mind — hundreds have been launched by men.
Consider Y Combinator: Since its startup “boot camp” began in 2005, providing techies with shoestring budgets and a collaborative environment, about 450 people have been accepted to the program. The number of women: 14, including Mah and three others in the current class.
It’s tempting to think the Y in Y Combinator has something to do with the Y chromosome. But the name actually derives from a calculus term familiar to geeks. And geeks, it seems, disproportionately happen to have the male XY chromosome, not the female XX. The question is: Why?
Well, I’d beg to differ about what he says about the glass ceiling, and, okay, I don’t like either Whitman or Fiorina, but that’s beside the point. (And if you’ve been living under a rock, Zuckerberg is the kid who started Facebook) So first, I’m pissed. But then I wonder, too: nature or nurture, as Harris asks. Former Harvard president Larry Summers implied it might be nature — and lost his job because of it (though he landed on his feet in the Obama administration.) And we have suggested here that maybe it has to do with women just not being welcome at the party.
Recently, we interviewed Stanford economist Myra Strober, founder of Stanford’s Center for Research on Women back in 1972, for our book. We were talking about the strides women have made since the days when she started her career and became a pretty big name in women’s rights — and where we still need to go. The first thing she said was that the pay gap had to go. She’s an economist, after all.
Second, though, and actually related to her first point, was this: “Opening up and making science and engineering more interesting for women so that they go into those careers is very important. I think you teach it in a different way. First of all, some of these science courses are taught so competitively because they’re trying to winnow out which people are going to get good grades in medical school. Of course, women have gone into medicine. But I think science other than medicine, I think women are poorly represented in those fields. And I think it behooves those fields to figure out how to make those courses more appealing to women. And the workplace, too.”
No kidding. But back to Harris, who at this point in his story, is interviewing Adora Cheung, the 26-year-old founder of another tech start-up:
Cheung suggested that it may be a matter of social expectations: When math gets tough, girls are often told that’s OK and try something else, but boys are encouraged to work harder.
Cheung said she was pleasantly surprised to find three other women in her Y Combinator class. Contagion Health co-founder Jen McCabe, who has scant computing skills, teamed with an engineer on their startup, designed to use social networks to promote healthy living. The notion that Y Combinator discriminates, McCabe said, is preposterous: “I’m actually surprised more women don’t do this.”
And after talking to the women of Y Combinator — and thinking about my young daughter and her brothers — I’m thinking that Cheung is on to something. Maybe the paucity of female tech entrepreneurs has something to do with what has been called the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Ya think? And now, I’m kinda bummed that I never stuck it out as a math major. Not that I necessarily wanted to go into that field as a career. But it would have given me some street cred to call out the likes of Larry Summers.
On the other hand — and here’s the toy in the Crackerjacks box — I never would have related to the Mad Men job interview. Apparently, I’d make a good Accounts Manager.