Startup Lessons: Overcoming the Obstacles to Gender Balance

The question came in an interview with the Anita Borg Institute, and as a part of its announced that I will be the host of their 2013 Women of Vision Awards program, an event for which I’m proud to be a part.

What obstacles are still inhibiting women’s participation in the tech sector at the same levels as men?

Reflectively, I climbed on my soapbox, because, you see,  I hate this question.  I hate that it still has to be asked and I hate that we (women, mostly) spend so much energy on it.  But, because this is the Anita Borg Institute, after all, and the interviewee was well-intentioned and only relaying the question on behalf of the organization’s members and because I really do support this group and want to be a good camper, I took a breath,stepped down, and examined my knee-jerk reactions for a moment.

The assumption in that question is that there are, in fact, obstacles, and let’s assume there are.  Those obstacles, then, can only fall into one of two categories: obstacles placed by others and obstacles placed by ourselves.

In the first category, I can only say that there is ample evidence of the stupidity of such a course, and as a case in point, I cite the research done by Illuminate Ventures and published in Whitepaper – High Performance Entrepreneurs: Women in High Tech.  Quoting from the synopsis:

Diversity Improves Performance: Organizations that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE and 34% better total return to shareholders versus their peers – and research shows gender diversity to be particularly valuable where innovation is key.

In other words, if you look around your C-suite or board table and see only men, knock down some obstacles, bring in smart and deserving women, and watch your business grow.

The second category is a bit tougher to reconcile, though. Often, the obstacles we place in our own paths are our assumptions that we blame on others.  At the risk of preempting the interview, which will be posted in its entirety on the Anita Borg Institute Facebook page on Monday, here’s my take on that kind of obstacle.

. . .  People gravitate to their comfort zones. Men are comfortable working with men, women with women.  We are all more comfortable working with old colleagues, college roommates, childhood friends. In our world, these relationships are often gender biased.   From time to time, to protect that comfort, men behave badly.  Women do, too, from time to time.   I don’t endorse the behavior.  I understand it.  And rarely do I find it as malicious as others do.

. . . The greatest obstacle is the human attraction to the familiar.  It’s a hard pattern to break.  But many women – and men – have broken it with great success.    The goal, I think, is to not let obstacles define your path.  I am reminded of this quote, from the great baseball executive, Branch Rickey:

“The greatest single thing in the qualification of a great player, a great team, or a great [person] is a desire to reach the objective that admits of no interference anywhere.”

Rickey, by the way, knew something about obstacles.  He broke the color barrier in baseball by signing Jackie Robinson, and he drafted the first Hispanic superstar Roberto Clemente.

 

That’s not to say that those of us who want to see a more even balance have to wait for the “sisters to do it for themselves.”  We have to make the effort.  I was reminded about that when I read Dylan Tweeny’s column this week,  What you need to do to get more women at your conference – or your company (to which, by the way, he would have attracted more readers had he cut the title after “women,” I’m just saying.)  What Dylan writes about here, I think, is the need to remove the obstacles of our own expectations in order to get to the kind of outcomes that are reported in the Illuminate white paper.

Certainly, there is a segment of people who are plainly driven by bias to act against their self interest.  Most prejudices are like that in one way or another, and I’m not at all naive about that.  But at the end of the day, we ought not to allow our internal assumptions – prejudices, as much as any other, to get in our own way.

 

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One thought on “Startup Lessons: Overcoming the Obstacles to Gender Balance

  1. Dylan Tweney says:

    “What you need to do to get more women” — yes, you’re right! That title would have had nearly *universal* appeal.

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