Being a woman founder myself, I am often dismayed by the gender imbalance in the startup world. As with age discrimination within the tech industry, there are some reasons that this takes place beyond the “good ol’ boys network.” Women do not attend startup events as much as men, so obviously they are missing out on many of the opportunities. Then when it comes to age discrimination, many business people in their 40s and 50s start to lag behind when it comes to technology, which is an obvious detriment when starting a tech startup, however, that doesn’t mean that ALL mature business participants have that issue. Not all gender and age inequities are due to overt discrimination, however, I’m also constantly appalled at how often discrimination against women, and more mature business participants, is still taking place.
The inequality needs to be addressed. Just the fact that the imbalance is so prevalent is a deterrent in itself, keeping women, especially younger women, from participating in many of the programs. When you are the only woman who shows up for a technology event amongst a sea of 100 men, it can be a rather intimidating event. Add to that comments from some of the men, who would rather keep it an all male event, and you can see why women don’t show up many times. Once you have a negative experience of this sort, it has a carry over effect, even when another event may be actively seeking out women participants. If you think this is only an American issue, think again. The following article by Senior Lecturer in Management at Queen’s University Belfast, gives a UK perspective on the issue.
Do tech accelerators have a sexism problem?
Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit are all companies that emerged out of tech accelerators. These incubators of talent have been a crucial component in turning tech start-ups into businesses that can stand on their own two feet. As well as giving needy new companies financial support and office space, they play an important role in helping them develop through mentoring.
So it’s good news that the number of accelerator programmes is set to increase in the UK, to support what is one of the world’s most dynamic start-up clusters and the most prominent start-up ecosystem in Europe. But, as this takes place, there’s a huge need to address the industry’s gender imbalance see this. My research into tech accelerator programmes has found many (often unwittingly) cater for men over women.
You only need to take a quick look at any accelerator participant list to see that women lack status, visibility and voice within these programmes. The US accelerator Y Combinator, for example, has invested in more than 700 start-ups (including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit). Just 13% of these have been led by women.
The situation in Europe is even bleaker. Some figures show that women hold a mere 5 to 10% share of accelerator programmes. This therefore begs the question as to whether accelerators offer equal access to women entrepreneurs, despite accelerators claiming to be “open to all”.
The well-rehearsed counter-argument to this imbalance is that this is merely a reflection of engineering and technology entrepreneurship – women just don’t feature prominently in the industry and the numbers in accelerator programmes reflects this. The evidence, however, indicates that within Europe women own around 15% of all science engineering and technology ventures. So, where are all the women when it comes to accelerators? Their minority status in the sector does not satisfactorily explain their absence from this important support mechanism.
Research I’ve carried out with my colleague Susan Marlow indicates that the absence of women is due to their perception that they are not the stereotypical accelerator candidate. This is intriguing given that it is assumed that these programmmes are free from prejudice, with the focus on the commercial potential of the venture and not the owner’s personal characteristics.
I didn’t think I was a candidate for this world-class accelerator. I didn’t think I looked like a ‘YC founder’.
Thus, women may be opting out of accelerator programmes because of a perceived lack of fit with the predominantly male tech and start-up culture.
For those women who do overcome this problem and get onto the programmes, they often then encounter prejudice and …