Guest post by Samara Mejia Hernandez
We’re not even talking about the right causes of the diversity problem in tech yet.
For the second year now, VC firm First Round Capital has released a fantastic “State of Startups” annual report. First Round surveyed over 700 founders and CEOs of technology startups to get their impressions on the current landscape of the startup world. The survey covers things like whether or not we’re in a bubble, how the IPO market is looking, and–yes–diversity in the tech world.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, you should definitely check out the report. It’s a relatively quick read and will give you a good fix for how folks are feeling about the environment we’re in today. But I want to dig into one particular topic that is near and dear to my heart: the fact that only 3% of venture funding goes to women and a measly 1% goes to people of color.
While there has been much progress in the dialogue around diversity in the technology sector, First Round’s report reminded me just how much work there is left to do. One of the questions in the survey asked the respondents to indicate the top reason for women and minorities being underrepresented in in tech. Those responses alone would have been interesting, but First Round took it a step further: they separated out the responses from men and women.
The findings? 49% of men believe that the top issue driving lack of diversity is that not enough women and minorities get into tech in the first place. This is known as the pipeline problem. When a CEO is asked why his leadership team is made up of five white men, his natural response is to point out that no qualified women or people of color applied for the positions. A year ago nearly to the day, Sequoia Capital Chairman Michael Moritz articulated the argument perfectly: Sequoia didn’t have any senior female VCs because the hiring committee was incapable of distinguishing gender and there were simply no qualified young women coming out of schools into the fields of technology.
This logic is so dangerous because it’s not immediately obvious how it’s wrong. But rest assured, it really couldn’t be further from the truth. And that’s why the proportion of women citing pipeline as the largest issue is only 23%. More important to the ones experiencing the problem firsthand? Unconscious bias in hiring/promotions and the lack of industry role models/mentors.
And now I want to circle back to the title of the article. Do you know why your boss is still a white man? Because it’s all too easy for the people in charge to point to the relatively low proportion of women coming out of CS undergrad as an immutable sign that they have no culpability in our industry’s diversity problem. If the solution for diversity is for more girls to want to study CS in college, then why should I as CEO or Venture Capitalist make any effort to address the issue?
That’s why your boss is still a white guy receiving 99% of venture funding. And it’s not going to change until we start tackling the right problems.
So what are some of the right problems that we should be talking about? Well let’s start with the two that the women in First Round’s survey highlighted.
Unconscious bias – It’s hard for me to overstate how real this problem is. And yet only 12% of the men surveyed thought it was the top issue. If you don’t have someone in your life who you trust to make this concrete for you, there are thousands and thousands of anecdotes online of what this looks like. It ranges from the systemic bias that women are less likely to negotiate a promotion to the subtle bias of assignment of tasks (Apparently being born without a Y chromosome makes you a better note taker. Still waiting on the peer-reviewed study).
Lack of role models – Lack of diversity is a self-perpetuating problem in many ways. The shortage of available mentorship for aspiring underrepresented minorities is a huge challenge. Let’s make this real for a second. From the data I can gather, I am one of three Latina venture capitalists in the country. One of three in an industry of thousands. So where am I supposed to turn to discuss the particular bias that I feel I run into in the course of my job (whether that bias is real or perceived)? Tens of thousands of other underrepresented minorities face that same challenge every day. Finding a good mentor that can relate to you on a personal level is hard for anyone. Finding one when your population doesn’t even have the genetic diversity to propagate the species? Good luck.
So what can you do?
It would have been easy enough for me to stop this post before this section. The misdiagnosis of the causes of our diversity issues is a topic that absolutely needs to be discussed more thoroughly. But I’ve committed to doing more. I am going to be part of the solution: it’s not enough for me to complain about where we are today; I want to make sure that we’re pushing forward to a better future.
Force conversations around bias. There is no room in the dialog for pretending it doesn’t exist. These conversations need to be driven from the top-down in a way that allows details to bubble up from the bottom. CEOs should be hosting bias forums on a regular basis. Solicit feedback from your workers. Make it anonymous if that will help. Incentivize your employees–men and women, white and minorities–to raise these issues proactively.
Proactively tackle the more obvious biases. Stop assigning note-taking duty to the women on your team. You may think you’re assigning these duties evenly (heck, you might even be). It doesn’t matter. On the whole the proportion is nowhere close. Address the challenge that women do not tend to negotiate their salaries. Acknowledge that men will more aggressively promote their work.
I try to put this advice into practice myself at my firm. We often end up with separate-gender interns. I found that the man was often more proactively and aggressively seeking out networking opportunities and assignments. I thought that being a go-getter was great, and told him as much. At the same time, I made sure that every opportunity I was affording to him was being shared with the woman. Whenever I made an intro for him, I made sure to look for a good opportunity to make an intro for her as well. And to be clear, this doesn’t need to be about gender. In the spring these traditional gender roles were switched: the woman was more aggressive in seeking opportunities. I realized that I had developed a system that helped level the playing field for all personality types, not specifically genders.
Focus on the post-hire experience. It’s not enough to make sure that you’re hiring for diversity. Your organization’s culture must foster inclusivity. For a while, much of the progress in diversity is going to come at the junior levels. Make sure that those junior employees have the support they need and are granted a voice in the organization. Again, recognize the bias where it is obvious and address it. Social events, for instance, can be subtly sexist. Golf outings and poker nights are male-targeted, whether you intend them to be or not. And no, making it a “spouse night” does not make it better. Seek opportunities for true inclusion.
Reward quality, not noise. Men are more likely to speak up sooner when ideas are solicited. That’s not better or worse; it’s just a different style. The challenge comes in that they are rewarded for that behavior while a woman’s more considered response is punished. Think about how ideas are solicited and rewarded in your organization. Recognize that signal-to-noise ratio matters. If you want to persist a culture of rapid-fire ideation, tweak the system so that ideas are solicited specifically from individuals rather than from whomever shouts our first.
To make this practical, take as an example the women in the White House who went out of their way to make sure their ideas were being recognized. Every time they noticed one of their female colleagues making a point that was then ignored, they would make sure to pile on and emphasize the point. They would continue this process for as long as it would take for their male colleagues to acknowledge the point. This may sound over-the-top, but the women noticed an immediate improvement in their ability to productively shape the dialogue and direction their work environment. And it wasn’t just them: the men took notice and voiced their appreciation for the women’s efforts to have a voice at the table. Learn from this success: asking for everyone’s opinion is a great start, but make sure that you follow up to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of all your team members. You brought them onto the team for a reason: bringing different points of view to the table enhances the conversation and raised the general level of performance.
The small things make a big difference. As nearly all professional women have experienced, I found that I was often being asked to book meetings and take notes more often than my male colleagues in the same position. I once had a boss who–whenever he saw these requests come through–would immediately step in and take over that responsibility. The result was a VP scheduling meetings and taking notes for managers. The humility that manager showed was inspiring in itself. But I could not have been more grateful for the message he was sending to the rest of the organization by putting himself forward.
I do know one thing. Greater diversity in the tech sector isn’t going to come from people like me talking about it. For one, we’re not encouraged to do it. Research has shown that minorities are systematically punished for speaking up on diversity. I don’t know a single underrepresented minority in my life who isn’t painfully aware of that research. Many take it very seriously. That means that change has to come from those who aren’t punished: white men. Fortunately, they’re also the people in the best position to effect the change, as they’re the ones who hold the power.
I couldn’t be more grateful to the white men out there who are already making a difference, because they’re ultimately going to lead the change we all want. I’m also grateful for all the work being done by the various organizations working on this issue, addressing the need for capital and resources for underrepresented groups. As you think about your role in helping march us forward, look to these men, women, and groups as role models for what good looks like.
Diversity in the startup world is a topic I care deeply about. Sure, it affects me personally because I’m Latina. But it’s also critically important to the future success of our industry. If you want to chat further or have any questions, please reach out to me on Twitter @SamaraMejia. Shout out to my good friend, David Vandegrift, who cares about the topic a great deal and co-wrote this post with me.