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Startup boot camp Y Combinator illustrates dearth of women in tech (mercurynews.com)
38 points by ssclafani 2652 days ago | hide | past | web | 45 comments | favorite

Speaking as a young woman in the industry whose startup has successfully turned into a solid small business and had to deal with condescending remarks from my male colleagues and clients (though very, very rarely on purpose), I would say it is due to both societal issues and the way computing is currently done.

Another issue is that young girls just don't generally like to spend a lot of time alone, and technology is overall an isolating pursuit, at least while you hone your skills. It's pretty easy for me to sit down with my young nephews and hang out on the computer together, but my nieces get bored of staring at the screen and prefer to make things, so I get their attention more when we play with sensors and robots.

I expect at some point technology will break out of the two dimensional confines, and young girls will pick up computing as much as they can excel at knitting and sewing, which I use primarily as an example of complex pursuits requiring attention to detail and logic but with a physical result.

Give it time. Bring your girls up to love technology as much as your boys and they'll be participating equally but in different ways. Accept, and enjoy, that girls and boys approach technology with different goals.

Could you give us some examples of condescending remarks that have been made but which weren't intended to offend?

One example - at a "nerd" event a couple weeks ago, one of the speakers said something to the effect of "it's really great to see all of you and your girlfriends at this event." Usually it's small assumptions like this. Another thing I've noticed, though without specific examples, is that people seem to assume girls at a hacker meetup aren't coders or will tend to give more attention to guys when discussions get technical. But of course this doesn't apply to everyone.

The critical mistake is assuming that this is sexist. It's not. It's basic pattern-seeking, a simple and harmless assumption. Getting all up in arms over it is worthless!

Everybody makes a million assumptions about other people every day -- you can't get around it, there are simply too damn many people that you come across to consider every one as if he/she were the first you'd ever seen.

Sexism - and condescension - would imply they were saying things, or acting, in a way that said they didn't believe women were capable.

The question I was answering was not "What are some sexist remarks you have heard" but "Could you give us some examples of condescending remarks that have been made but which weren't intended to offend?" It's great if these kinds of comments don't bother you (I'm not a woman developer), but I know it would annoy me if every hacker meetup I went to, people had a greater tendency to dismiss things that I was saying partly because I was a woman, even if they didn't realize they were doing it.

She didn't say that people dismissed her remarks, once she actually started speaking, or that they treated her unkindly after they realized she was a developer. The way I read it was that people assumed - before she opened her mouth - that she was a girlfriend/wife who came with.

That's not offensive. That's just statistics.

Downvote me all you like, but I'm a successful woman developer and I'm the one saying it!

I can't tell you how often I see women crying "sexism" and making themselves feel like victims, instead of just accepting that _people make assumptions with no ill intent whatsoever_.

And I've overheard women speakers at conferences complaining about how sexist the board is, because their talks were rejected, when I was the one rejecting them because their talk proposals were off-topic, uninteresting and poorly put together...

Real sexism is vicious. Normal, well-meaning human foibles are not. Conflate the two, and you impair your own ability to function in life.

What is it about the way computing is currently done that inhibits women outside of social norms?

I wonder If programming syntax as it is designed might have some influence. There is some evidence that men and women use language differently, is it possible that common computing syntax designed mostly by men to actualize their thought process is biased towards the gender?

Then maths would be biaised too towards boys. But studies have shown that gender doesn't affect competence in maths.

Other studies have shown that it has.

It's not the programming syntax I think so much as the teaching of it.

Programming books, classes, etc., are led by people who "just get it" - and therefore taught badly - and therefore can only be understood by people who "just get it". And those people tend to look down on people who can't "just get it."

I, on the other hand, am a girl, and an extremely visual/verbal girl at that... an excellent designer and accomplished writer. I was doing all of that basically from a young age. I also learned BASIC.

When it came time to learn more complex programming, though, I got stuck, and nobody could explain it to me in a way that helped. I ended up teaching myself to draw loop diagrams, and procedural diagrams, and object diagrams, to visually THINK OUT the code, what it was doing. For a long time, I had to do this every time, or I was completely incapable of getting any traction on the coding problem at hand.

The thing about programming is that you have to actually BUILD AN INTERPRETER in your head. Some people seem to be born with the ability to do this. They are almost all - but not entirely - male.

I, on the other hand, am now an excellent developer. I know many developers who can write much tighter individual lines of code than me - but most of them can't analyze and break down a problem, and architect as well as I do. And my lines of code are still very good.

So, I started out with a "disability" but now I'm really great.

That's because I read programming books, and went to programming classes, and instead of thinking "ZOMG I'll never get this" I thought to myself, "I'm really smart - this class is shit!" And proceeded to nag everyone to answer my questions about my visual diagrams, until I got it.

That's why I write and teach code in a visual way.

And amazingly, I have a much higher percentage of women readers and women course attendees than the general coding population... and also many, many grateful men who come from non-traditional backgrounds, like history majors, artists, designers, musicians and linguists.

Comp Sci problems aren't men vs women, they're super-crazy-almost-too-left-brain vs normal-or-right-brain.

> I am... extremely visual/verbal > I thought to myself, "I'm really smart - this class is shit!" And proceeded to nag everyone to answer my questions about my visual diagrams, until I got it.

Amen. I start everything with a pen, and draw pictures of boxes, cogs, and conveyor belts with little boxes on them.

When I get a traceback, I know exactly how a message has flowed through my app and where it stopped. I can also explain my program to non technical audiences and they get it.

When I was learning OOo, all the horrible jargon discouraged me so much until I realized that the basic concept is just things with actions.

The more I learn about something, the simpler it gets, and the more I realize how badly written most computer books are. A happy exception is the 'Head First' books by Kathy Sierra.

Hi marquis, please write me! amy@slash7.com. I wanna hear what you're working on.

I think your idea of "real world" / physical things is a really interesting thread. Check out my comment below about the teaching of programming and see how our ideas cross!

By the way... young people, all young people, get condescending remarks from older people. The more successful you are, the more remarks you're going to get, because successful young people are equally loved and loathed. That's the way of the world. Don't assume that just because it appears to you that it appears in a certain form that it actually has anything to do with you being a woman.

All of those remarks come from fear. They show that the person saying them is weak and afraid. Or simply a regular old foolish human being with no bad intentions who operates his/her mouth on autopilot, just like everything else in his/her life.

Statistically founding a tech startup is at the intersection of two things which are primarily male-dominated at the moment: founding companies and IT. It's really only when they're multiplied together that it becomes so starkly biased towards males.

My long standing theory on the tech front has been that the hook in the 80s and early 90s for kids getting into technology was computer games, which were largely marketed to boys.

My little sister, however, was born in 1988, and by the time she was using a computer the primary hook was the internet, which (as I recall) young girls spend more time on than young boys.

Like I had, she learned to program at a young age, knew HTML when she was 11, Java when she was 14, and so on. However, also like me, she had a lot of aptitude for music.

I was fiercely discouraged from music. My parents saw it as a waste of time. Becoming a software engineer was respectable. Heck, I started college in 1997 when it seemed like about the best thing in the universe that a kid could go into.

Now, my sister was encouraged in music. My mom moved 90 miles away so that she could go to a magnet high school for performing arts, my parents bought her a $3000 flute and drove her around the country to top conservatories for auditions when the time came. But even up to her senior year in high school she was considering a double major in physics and music, but the interest in physics was largely downplayed by my parents.

Now, what happened there? Two kids, both good at mathematical stuff and music, same parents, wildly different parenting approaches. I don't think my parents in the meantime considered music any more useful – it was simply acceptable that she do something useless, while I had to do something useful. I think you see where this is going.

In college I noticed this again – the computer science department was about 95% male, while the math department was only 50% male. The difference obviously wasn't in analytical abilities – I think anybody that could get through a math degree could get through a CS degree. No, the difference was that almost all of the girls were minoring in education and intending to become math teachers.

I don't think that everything in the gap is nurture; there's probably some truth to chest-beating nature of starting a company, but the scales certainly are tipped heavily in the direction of boys by our upbringing.

In my all-girls school we didn't have technical drawing, woodwork, etc. In my brother's all-boys school they did. Gender stereotypes in culture take generations to work themselves out - that's not a problem, but what is a problem is when people make assumptions about aptitude based on current social expectations and situations and act on those to the detriment of some people and ultimately many more.

the scales certainly are tipped heavily in the direction of boys by our upbringing.

Perhaps, but...

I was fiercely discouraged from music.

Your own upbringing sounds pretty atypical.

To be clear, it wasn't that my parents discouraged music from the get-go; they discouraged me from taking music seriously. In high school I taught myself to play four instruments, went into a studio and recorded a single for an indy compilation CD with my band and spent most of my free money and time on music stuff.

The contrast was that while I was buying new instruments with money I made from mowing lawns and working at a burger joint, my parents still complained about me wasting the money on them. When my sister began taking music seriously they bought her nice instruments and never pushed her to get a job so that she could focus on music.

Ironically, by the end of college, while studying computer science, I was paying my bills with music.

$3000 is a sizable chunk of change for an instrument for a H.S. student but only moderate in the range of flute prices.

That's not really the point. They probably spent in excess of $3000 on computers for him over the years.

My wife works in an industry dominated by women and gay males. AFAICT, nobody in this industry thinks this is for any reason other than women and gay males being interested at the work and few straight males being interested. People get that, as a whole, gender and sexuality shape your interests. There's no scare articles about something being wrong with the industry, or large companies trying to hire straight male quotas, but where they exist, people like them and appreciate them for what is frequently a different and refreshing focus.

And as a straight male, I'm OK with this.

When I was a kid I loved dressing up and makeup, etc. My parents (thankfully) did not discourage this type of play, but did they encourage me to make a career out of this interest? No. Was there anything in society that pushed me, a straight male, towards this career? Not really. Instead, while I was playing with Barbie I was also telling everyone I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, mainly because I liked paper airplanes.

Kids seek approval from adults, adults approved of my interest in engineering, not my interest in fashion. Is it a surprise that I majored in CS?

You do make a good point. Part of the reason I was attracted to my wife is an appreciation of the traditionally creative industries, something that's always held my interest - I use to buy a lot of fashion magazines as a kid, and I got started programming by doing architecture inside video games. I think that boys interested in the arts are often pushed towards 'manly' pursuits like architecture rather than traditionally soft skills like fashion design - my parents were this way, it yours seems yours were too. Now I'm 30, and I regret not engaging the creative part of my brain more readily.

Perhaps we should be saying that girls who want to make stuff on computers should be encouraged to pursue that, just like boys who want to make clothes. No quotas, no 50% expectation, just encouragement for the kids who need it.

So what industry is this, and who are their customers?

1. Fashion.

2. Anyone who wears clothes (from streetwear brands like All Saints that do jeans and t shirts to D&G to bridalwear to millinery to anything in between).

There's a lot to say on this subject but basically it comes down to this:

What you think of as fashion is designing or observing women's high fashion and not something like traditional tailoring, watchmaking or other more male oriented fashion. There are straight men even in women's high fashion, but generally in higher positions. You also have straight men in all parts of outdoor clothing or sportswear, which is more utilitarian but most of the time still has a higher price point than fast fashion. Why men's high fashion is more conservative than women's is another story.

That being said. While women's gender role are stricter, men's gender role is much less questioned. Probably because of the disadvantages being less measurable.

> What you think of as fashion is designing or observing women's high fashion

If by you meant me specifically, that's clearly not true. See the post you replied to.

Ok, I guess you mean retail then. But then I don't get your point as retail overall isn't overly women and gay male dominated. Sure, most stores cater to women and women's fashion retailers are generally going to have predominantly female clerks and store managers, but this doesn't translate to higher positions most of time.

Anyway, the whole issue for me isn't personal like I get impression of in the article. It's about the freedom to do whatever you want without being forced to fit in a predetermined mold, both for men and women.

Like I said there's much to be said on the subject and maybe there are some cultural differences. Also I have somewhat of a hard time expressing my thoughts on the subject as most of my reasoning on the subject has been in my native language. This probably isn't the most enthusiastic audience when it comes to this anyways.

No need to guess, just ask. I mean design and production, not retail. Even if you buy jeans and T shirts, the designers and producers are majority female or gay men.

Might be a cultural thing then [1]. I do agree that there are far more women in fashion design and production than men. But I can off the top of my head think of several "fashion startups" with (one or more as far as I know straight) male founders or head designers [2]. Something I can't say about women in technology startups.

[1] Sweden is the home of H&M and also supposedly one of the more gender equal countries in the world.

[2] Acne, WeSC, Odd Molly, J.Lindeberg, Cheap Monday/Weekday, Our Legacy, Peak Performance, Whyred etc.

Something that bothers me whenever something like this comes up is that children are assumed to be one dimensional beings. I know for sure that at some level, be it proprioception or some difference in processing information, male and female brains are different. However, the catch is that those differences may not actually be that profound.

Children as young as 3 can pick up gender cues from the environment and base their behavior on that. I know that I did. I just knew that I couldn't play with dolls. I knew I couldn't talk about babies and things like that. I knew I was expected to pick fights with other kids. I knew what my parents expected from me, and in order to seek their approval I did precisely that.

There are so many subtle societal cues which govern behavior. You tend to only notice them when you are carefully paying attention constantly. They are undertones in conversations. It is how people look at you. It is what they first talk about. It is in their facial expressions, and somehow unconsciously we internalize them all.

What is even more interesting is what happens when a child is gender variant. Societies response to such a child happens to be quite telling, and unfortunately for a child, at least, such things matter. It mattered to me and it matters for any child. At that age approval is everything.

So is it surprising that more women don't go into tech?

In the coming years when this generation grows up in an environment of different expectations and viewpoints. I think that there will be more women in tech, and they will wonder why women earlier didn't choose it as a career.

The point is that kids must be respected and loved not confined as beings who have to grow into pre-defined roles. Only then can such things change.

Taking a cue from Philip Greenspun, maybe the real question is: why are there so many men? In my experience, at least half the people in "tech" are miserable. HN.YC focuses on the winners, not the losers. For every young startup hotshot, there are 1000 middling software engineers working on connecting the invoice database to the PO database and wishing they never got into the field in the first place.

There aren't very many women going into tech because there aren't very many women in tech. Male or female, when a kid is picking a college or major, they tend to listen to their friends (and maybe even family). If none of their female friends are considering Computer Science, it's an uphill battle to sell a girl on that. I don't think most teens care as much about this as parents, but if they can't see positive role models already in that field, it's even harder to consider that field.

I don't think it's getting much better soon. My daughter's on a First LEGO League team (4 boys, 2 girls) and we see lots of teams without a single girl on them. Our local Girl Scout council got a grant to fund several First LEGO League teams. We've tried to work with them to mentor any new teams but no success. (Now, maybe an all-Girl Scout team is unrealistic, but it has been done.)

Random thought comes to mind: Does anyone think that Dan Brown novels might help get more women into Math/CS? They have a tendency to have female techies. I know at least one woman who was inspired by one of the novels to learn a bit about crypto.

Most of the sci-fi I've read have great female role models. Dan Brown is an awful writer so would be better to push better writers - get their films made! :)

Why are so many people equating math with programming with science? There might be some bleed between the subjects, but Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, none of these strike me as requiring particularly high level math skills.

The most informative thread on the Internet on this subject is probably this one:


That's an extremely informative, citation dense conversation which took place in the aftermath of the Summers/Barres imbroglio a few years ago.

Only 14 out of 450 are women? That's just 3 percent. Yikes.

Paul invited me to apply for YC but I declined because I didn't want to move for 3 months. (I'm a girl.) I don't know if that is still in effect, but it is ridiculous, and more men than women will go to ridiculous lengths.

Compare that percentage to a course I just finished teaching, 12 weeks on bootstrapping - how to make your first profitable product, on the side.

I had triple the percentage of female students - 4 women out of 50 participants. They were all 30 or older. I am reaching women that no seed fund will reach, and they are going to be successful.

I expect that percentage to grow.

> I don't know if that is still in effect, but it is ridiculous, and more men than women will go to ridiculous lengths.

It isn't ridiculous, it's the whole basis of the program. I did the program last winter, convinced that I could do it just as well from home. I'm now convinced of the opposite: doing a successful startup (excepting side-project type startups, which are valid but different) requires being in the valley.

It may be ridiculous in the sense that it is a hardship, and if you think men will go through this hardship more than women, then I think we know why the numbers are so skewed.

When I lived in the bay area, it seemed more like a vacation than a hardship.

This will get me downvoted in flames but...

... yes, it's a hardship. It's a hardship that is, in a sense, one way to ingrain into you certain beliefs, by taking away your familiar surroundings and making you part of the lifestyle / surrounded by people doing the same thing.

Just like the military. And religious orders. And cults.

The idea that I proposed to pg at startup school could have been a real business, that earned real money. I didn't have to be in the valley. I looked at my life and realized that it would be asinine to pick up and move on the argument of somebody who if I moved, I could succeed.

And, lo and behold, look at where lots of successful web-based businesses come from: Georgia, Brooklyn, Chicago...

Yes, if you want to climb the suicidal face of the mountain, if you want to grow big and get bought, maybe you need connections more than great ideas, great understanding of people, or great chops.

But then again, maybe you don't.

And yet again, if you want to create a business that charges real money, it doesn't matter where you are - and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Either on the whole females are fundamentally less capable of excelling in mathematical subjects or it's a societal thing. I believe it's the latter. I think the article hit it on the head: "girls are often told that's OK and try something else, but boys are encouraged to work harder."

Math is fun because it's challenging and part of my motivation comes from my peers', parents', and teachers' expectations that I excel.

I think the problem rises from a combination of:

    "Math is hard... let's go shopping!"
and more insidiously

    "Physics is hard... let's go to English class!"
I've seen a few really smart girls get frustrated with physics or chemistry, give up, write it off, and then focus their effort on english or history or some other humanities class.

My favorite professor was a mathematician who did her doctorate at Zürich in the 1940s. Needless to say, for most of her career she was the only woman in the department. With the advent of feminism she would get called up frequently by activists or journalists asking her to comment on all the obstacles she faced as a woman (a request she steadfastly rejected), and also on how to get girls into math. Her routine answer to the latter was that if anyone had tried to "get her into math" she would have promptly dropped math and taken up embroidery. But my favorite story was when the controversy hit about the talking Barbie who said "Math is hard." She was phoned up and asked what she had to say about this. Her response: "Barbie is right."

Girls have dreadfully few role models too, and certainly aren't properly encouraged by mainstream culture to cultivate ability in the hard sciences and mathematics. I think it'll get better in future generations, however. I've spoken to a lot of programmers who are now raising daughters who are curious, tech literate, and not afraid to act smart. That ought to be encouraging.

It's certainly a problem in this generation though. I was just at the Minneapolis Hacker News meetup, and it was 100% male.

YC is somewhat infamous for having a bias. Their reputation is that if you're not a college-aged Caucasian male, you need not apply.

Of course, there is a dearth of women in tech, but I think it has to be exacerbated by this kind of subconscious preference.

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