September 9, 2014
The technology industry needs more women innovators, Stanford expert says
Stanford scholar Vivek Wadhwa says the technology industry must level the playing field for women by encouraging their startups and removing obstacles in their way.
By Clifton B. Parker
Women in technology are treated differently than their male counterparts, a Stanford scholar says. (Photo: TommL/iStock)
The tech industry is hurting itself and the U.S. economy by limiting opportunities for women in the most innovative fields, according to a Stanford scholar.
Women are ready to take on key problems and challenges in technology, says Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur and fellow with Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance. But when women go to venture capitalists seeking financing for their new startups, he says, they are often treated differently than men. Stanford News Service recently interviewed Wadhwa about the tech world gender gap.
What can be done to provide more job opportunities for women in high technology?
The job opportunities are there; the problem is that because of conscious – and unconscious – bias, women are excluded from these.
Take the boards of technology companies. They are predominantly male. When asked why there are so few women, CEOs say it is a pipeline problem, that there aren't enough women engineers.
But a significant proportion of the male board members of technology companies aren't engineers either. They have degrees in fields such physiology, English, marketing, finance – or no degrees at all. Women are held to a different standard.
In the lower ranks of technology companies, you find young men doing most of the interviews. They often ask immature, childish questions that other boys are likely to answer best. Women feel intimidated and discouraged and walk away from these opportunities.
Why are there so few women in high technology? What are the barriers and hurdles?
Because it is perceived to be a profession best suited to males. Parents often discourage their daughters from studying engineering because they don't believe it is for girls. In school, girls in engineering are ridiculed as tomboys or nerds. When they join the workforce, they usually face discrimination and sometimes physical abuse.
So, they get discouraged and leave. When women go to venture capitalists to seek financing for their startups, they are often treated differently than men and held to a higher standard. They are also asked awkward and humiliating questions about their family and parenting plans, and are even sometimes subjected to sexual advances.
My new book, Innovating Women, details many examples of these. In it, women tell their own stories and discuss how they surmounted the obstacles.
How have people criticized your efforts to call attention to the gender imbalance?
I am the Indian with arrows in his back. I have had (former) friends ask what "agenda" I had in bringing up these issues – and they advised me to stay clear of such a topic. I have had tech industry moguls attack my academic credentials and call me a fraud. One CEO compared me to a comedian and said I was "the Carrot Top of academic sources."
Fortunately, the people who have been criticizing me are a tiny minority. The vast majority of men and women have been supporting my efforts. In fact, when I decided to crowdsource Innovating Women, I was hoping to get 30-40 women help me with this project. I was amazed that I got the support of more than 500. Dozens of men also offered to help.
Are you optimistic that more women will one day be working in such jobs?
Without doubt, things are changing for the better. Today, there is a chorus of female and male bloggers, business executives and venture capitalists who are openly discussing the problems and solutions. Silicon Valley is pivoting.
Will technology itself play a role in creating more jobs for women, and if so, how?
Women are beginning to dominate many fields in education, and are gaining an increasing share of the degrees. They now earn 61.6 percent of all associate's degrees, 56.7 percent of all bachelor's degrees and 58.5 percent of graduate degrees in the United States. More women than men graduate in fields such as biology, education, health sciences, social and behavioral studies, and arts and humanities. Girls now match boys in mathematical achievement.
Through the centuries, women have rarely been given credit for their achievements, and have been discouraged from studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics because they're considered male fields. They face discrimination at all points of their careers and are shunned by venture capitalists.
The companies that women start, however, tend to be more practical and sensible than those started by men. They achieve 35 percent higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bring in 12 percent higher revenue than venture-backed male-owned tech companies.
Women entrepreneurs are therefore best placed to solve humanity's grand challenges and to better the world. We must level the playing field for women by supporting their startups and removing the hurdles that are thrown in their way. Parents must inspire their daughters to step forth and take their rightful role in the innovation economy.