Women in startups

My friend Michelle is working with a startup incubator at her university, and asks:

  • Why are women under-represented in startups?
  • Why is this a problem?
  • What to do about it?

Please share your thoughts and/or relevant links in the comments. (If it’s directly relevant to Australia, that’s a bonus.)

Here is my friend’s message in full:

Hi there, My friend Chris and I have been having a discussion recently and he’s kindly agreed to bring some questions of mine to your online brains-trust – I hope you don’t mind me asking a few things that you probably discuss all the time. In the last year my University has begun supporting/funding an incubator for start-ups. I think it’s a great idea, and told them so – it’s the first in the country – but I also couldn’t help noticing that, in their last few rounds, *very* few of the leads on successful start-ups (or at least, those pictured to take place in the official photos shoots) were women. I took this up with them and, to their credit, they were very open to a discussion on the subject. I mentioned that I knew women were under-represented in tech and start-ups, and they acknowledged that there was more than one way for them to be a ‘first’ in this area. I also said that I knew there was a literature on this topic – although I wasn’t much familiar with it beyond that – and they asked if I could put something together for them. So at the moment I am knee-deep in opinion and stats and reports (much of it specific to North America, but useful nonetheless) from all over the web and beyond, and am pulling together what I have in three separate areas:

  1. Why are women under-represented in the start-up arena? (I know that the literature on women in STEM/IT has quite some history, and I will necessarily draw on that – but for the sake of readability I am trying to keep this focused.)
  2. Why is this a problem? (As mentioned earlier, this particular programme at my University is already open to acknowledging that the current male dominance is ‘a problem’, for various reasons – but I’m also well aware, from what I’ve already read, that there is a vein of argument that says, ‘an idea is an idea is an idea… who cares if a man or a woman has it? It should be judged on its merit alone’ and another that says, ‘look, if women don’t want to get involved in start-ups, for whatever reason, why force them?’. So any potential come-back along these lines I would like to disarm before it even has the chance to be raised.)
  3. What to do about it? (I am finding this question a particular challenge in this context, since a lot of what I’ve read so far says – unsurprisingly – that women’s career trajectories and breaks for child-rearing play a large part in the lack of (or loss of women from) tech careers and jobs. Given that here we’re talking, in the main, about undergraduate students (the programme is also open to postgrads and University staff, but what I see of the successful start-ups tells me that it’s mainly undergrads getting involved), the marriage-and-children element is not yet in play in a big way. I know that what this will likely leave instead is the ‘culture’ arguments – girls’ socialization to maths and science and IT, how far they are encouraged to pursue these, how much they want to get into an environment where they perceive there will be conflict, etc – and that these will be difficult to address… but I get a sense that the University wants to try and do that.

I guess you probably discuss this kind of thing all the time, and don’t necessarily want to trawl through it all again in this forum. If you do, I would be very appreciative! If not, I would be very pleased to have any suggestions for especially useful documents or stats or arguments you might have read and would like to share. I think this might be an opportunity to actually do something productive, since there is already a will to act: the why and what just need to be spelled out in such a way that action becomes both possible and as easy as possible. Thanks! Michelle