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Where Are All The Girls?

Editorial note: This is a guest post by Natalie Gaudet, who is one of the key people behind Aalto Venture Garage and Startup Sauna.

You are sitting in an entrepreneurial event, in a room full of people. You look around and suddenly realize that the room is filled with men, boys and guys. Where all the girls you ask yourself?

Its a question asked more often than not. Aren't there women entrepreneurs? As one of the the lone girls in this field, I have decided to deeply look into the reasons why there are so few female entrepreneurs.

These reasons are not only Finland-specific, they are similar worldwide. For example, according to the Dow Jones VentureSource, only about 11% of US firms with venture capital-backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or founders. And Y-Combinator has had only 14 female founders among the 208 firms it has funded.

Role Models
I strongly believe the reason why there are so few women entrepreneurs is because of a lack of role models. Name one woman founder or co-founder who has taken a tech-based company from inception to a global scale. Give up?  While there are many companies that have women CEOs, it's hard to think of the female equivalent of Mark Zuckerburg.

(And while we are on the topic of Zuckerburg, in the movie ‘The Social Network’ did you noticed how female characters are portrayed? They were either dancing in their underwear or having sex in bathroom stalls. Great, some role models we have...)

Young girls do not have successful women entrepreneurs to look up to. If there are no role models, girls will be reluctant to get into this field. No role models mean no women mentors.

Education
Perhaps it is the way we speak about startups that is not attractive for a girl to get into. Maybe it is not appealing for a woman’s mindset? There is a whole language that surrounds the ecosystem of startups. Pitching, bootstrapping, burnrate etc. are words that might not allure girls into this world.

There are great female coders and developers out there but they are not building world class startups. It’s because it might not be interesting for them to found a high tech startup. It seems that women are more into building companies that really make an impact into ones life, not just about building another app to find your friends.

Through my observations I realized that female entrepreneurs also get viewed and coached differently than their male colleagues - it might be because it is almost a novelty to see a girl pitching a startup.

Network
Men and women network differently among each other. Though most of the existing networks are not explicitly based on gender, there are some initiatives worldwide to create girls-only entrepreneurs clubs. Could that segregating women from the rest?

When the creation of  TEDWomen was announced a while ago, it sparked controversial conversation questioning whether it is a step backward for gender equality to funnel women into a separate and perhaps unequal TED conference. Would having a female-only network do the same?

Though there is a positive example of gender separation: all-girls schools tend to perform better than mixed gender schools. Does that mean that if we gather only female entrepreneurs to work together with female VCs and investors, we would see more successful women entrepreneurs? Would this also cut out the fear of failure?

Life situation
Really, it boils down to one thing: that women will always be the sex that childbears.

Penelope Trunk, 3 times entrepreneur and author offers this incite:  'Smart women in their 20s are looking for husbands and cannot be 100% focused on some pie-in-the-sky startup. Women in their 30s are having kids and trying to figure out how to work less. Men are more easily focused solely on work.'

It’s true that building a startup takes 100 hours a week and thus women thinking of starting a family or those that already have small children are reluctant to do so. Successful male entrepreneurs who have a family most probably have a stay-at-home wife to take care of the family. Is it possible to have two successful high-tech growth entrepreneurs in a family? If not, would the female entrepreneur require a stay-at-home husband then?

Striving for a work-life balance is what most women want. There are only a handful of female entrepreneurs out there to look up to. Just as there were fewer female doctors and engineers back in the day. Nevertheless, I believe that entrepreneurship is one of those fields where women will get into eventually.

Image by Caghs the Cat Lady

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Mike Bradshaw September 06, 2011

I guess most of them are at places with less aggressive and more co-operative atmospheres?
I was at the Weekly Hub Helsinki breakfast this morning and the ratio was 10 women and 4 men. Maybe there is something in social entrepreneurship that is just more attractive to women.

Also this Tweet from Kristoffer is rather timely http://twitter.com/Setok/status/110839574913220608

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prasanen September 06, 2011

A great post and a very important topic. We can see the same challenge everywhere in "scalable" oriented startup communites, also here in Tampere at New Factory. Just few female core team members! Some more discussion and examples from the battlefield will be available @Mindtrek : http://tattletech.net/blog/2011/09/05/mindtrek/

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Camilla Ley Valentin September 06, 2011

Great post, Natalie. We need focus on this to make innovation more balanced. Very similar situation going on in Copenhagen, see my guest blog on ComON on the subject (translate, it's in Danish): http://blog.comon.dk/2010/12/22/g%C3%A6steblog-hvor-er-kvinderne/

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Aape September 06, 2011

Natalie - I promise that I will start dragging my female friends, colleagues, and mates to Garage the way I keep on dragging my male friends.

As I said today @ lunch, it is the girls and women who will save this planet. We need to push you, enable you, empower you. You will prevail. We will prevail.

Great post. Thank you.

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Maria V. September 06, 2011

Important topic and excellent post! All though I don't agree on the most part of it. I'm more with Mike.

I think the reason is mostly about risk taking! It goes back to biology: men have more "lives" to spare, women have just one (per month, to be exact). Simple explanation I know, but think about it, it does make sense.

I agree with Mike that social entrepreneurship and women go together. (Just look at the first social entrepreneur in The Apprentice, Melody Hosseini.) Why? Again biology: women are caretakers, men just need to maximize their profit, so to say.

This does not mean that we are bound by biology! But by understanding the reasons behind certain behavior, gives as a chance to change it, and encourage more women to entrepreneurship, in the right way!

Btw there are excellent role models out there! Melody is one. Here's another one of mine: http://www.ted.com/speakers/jane_mcgonigal.html

And I do see your point with women risking excluding themselves, but I'm all for "good sister" networks as long as "good brother" networks exist! (sorry for the finlandism, not sure what it's in English)

But most of all I'm so glad that you represent our sex at the Garage, keep it up girl!

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Maria V. September 06, 2011

@Camilla Du träffar mitt i prick med din blogpostning! Du verkar ha analyserat orsakerna i samma stil som jag, men gått vidare med att erbjuda lösningar, skräddarsydda för kvinnor. Det är precis vad vi behöver! Mera sånt!

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Ted Valentin September 06, 2011

Hi! Great post. I think that role models is an important part of the equation. Recently, I built a website where you can show which people you look up to, and then tag them, for example "female entrepreneur". Would be great with more finns on the site.

Here are female web entrepreneurs that people look up to so far:

http://www.lookup.to/tags/Female+Entrepreneur%2C+Web+Entrepreneur

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Antti Sipilä September 07, 2011

Women and men are different. But so are the most successful start-ups. So could it be an advantage to be a woman starting up now if all the others out there are run by men?

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Elina Arponen September 07, 2011

I'm an entrepreneur building a "scalable startup". The startup ecosystem we are building at Aalto Venture Garage is very supportive and sharing. Entrepreneurs here help each other when they can. Nothing wrong for a woman or anyone to be here!

It is true you need to able to handle uncertainty but no reason why women could not do it.

If you run out of time it's always a matter of prioritizing and using your time wisely! My husband is also in the same startup and we have a 3-year-old son so I know I can't use 100% of my time for the company. It would not be the best for me or the company either if I did. I can still put 110% of my effort to it when I'm working and that works. :)

Great post Natalie!

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Kristoffer Lawson September 11, 2011

This is something I have given a fair amount of thought to, and I believe it is quite simply a matter of interest. Ever since I was a small child, coding on my ZX Spectrum, I found girls were totally uninterested in hardcore tech. Believe me, it was not for lack of trying to get them into it.

For sure role models might play some part, but where did the original role models come from? We are talking about technology startups here and many, many of them will have been set up by people with a background in technology. It's only natural.

Some complain that it would be difficult to enter a male-dominated environment as a female techie, but personally I have rarely seen anything but respect and warm welcoming for any lady coders. After all, the world's first programmer was a woman.

Now, to point this out does not mean that female techies do not exist, nor that no women are interested in technology for the sake of itself. It just appears to be much less common.

I think the big question really is: is this a problem, and why? If there are differences, why are the areas men get involved with valued higher, in society? At the same time it's also good to celebrate the exceptions.

It might also be worthwhile considering that entrepreneurship is extremely high risk. We hear all the glamorous stories, but actually the vast majority of startups end up in the deadpool, with people ending up in heavy personal debt or burnt out. Men have had more historic tendencies towards that kind of high risk, self-destructive behaviour (for somewhat obvious reasons). But, again, I think we need to be extremely careful we don't translate that into stating "All women are uninterested in entrepreneurship", but rather to once more celebrate the exceptions and offer everyone that equal platform to take off or crash.

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Elina Arponen September 11, 2011

Kristoffer: Sure it's a matter of interest, but the interests are formed up very early and they are heavily affected by role models. If girls' only role models are fashion, make-up and care-taking examples they will acquire a taste and liking for these fields. Girls will grow interested in them once their knowledge on the area rises and they become experts in their peer groups.

Around high-school it is way too late to affect one's deepest notions on what in society is interesting and meaningful to a person.

My mother is an M.Sc. engineer and I have no delusions on how much that may have affected me always thinking that engineering is not just a boys' thing. It was never certain before the end of high-school that I would become M.Sc but I also was always thinking openly about that being a fun and likable option that would lead to a very fulfilling and social life.

So can we make lot of women suddenly interested in tech? Hardly.

Should we still try and champion the cause? Certainly.

Any field benefits from diversity. It's the people who still run things, even the machines.

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Celine September 12, 2011

Good for you Natalie to be on the front line of change! In the past, many careers were male dominated...medicine, education. With your help and others like you we shall soon see more female entrepreneurs.

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Kristoffer Lawson September 12, 2011

Elina, role models make a difference, for sure. But also where do the first role models come from? I've been coding since I was 7, and believe me, none of the girls I knew back then had any interest in programming, despite my best efforts to get them interested! There is actually research showing these differences at extremely young ages (toddler ages).

However I agree that role models are also important and, as mentioned, if there are differences, then we should consider why that is a problem and also what should be done to support individual choices which do not follow those differences (and, indeed, how strong those differences even are).