Glass ceiling in Silicon Valley

As a female startup owner, you’re used to spending hours juggling between your work and family responsibilities. Everyone tells you “ If you're really serious about building a startup, move to Silicon Valley.” You drop everything and follow your friend and family’s advice. "Why not?" You think. Silicon Valley is the place to be when it comes to entrepreneurial spirit and ideas.For a while I used to think that being at Silicon Valley signified a world of marvelous people working on their laptops at hipster coffee shops while developing the next great thing.   But then ... reality knocks at your door. You look around and find social and economic obstacles everywhere. The romantic view of the open-minded and liberal community of entrepreneurs unexpectedly fades away.  Your first thoughts: Oh My! This is a man’s, man’s world! The point is: There is a strong gender gap in the tech industry. Women are overwhelming underrepresented. And this is not as obvious as it may sound when it comes to Silicon Valley, and its implications should not be dismissed lightly.

Although the tech sector prides itself for being progressive and inclusive, it has done very little to address gender inequality, especially in terms of promoting women’s participation in high-level positions, and directing investment to female-owned startups (through gender-specific incubators, venture capital, and so on). And that is a controversial topic indeed. But if we want to move forward as a diverse and inclusive society, we need to spark this debate somewhere. 

To begin with, let’s start first by addressing stereotypes. Unfortunately, they are  the dominant lens through which others may judge us. From a female perspective, the male-geek stereotype is very alive and strong in the tech industry. Page, Karp, Dorsey, and Zuckerberg all typify the male-geek who hacked their way through to the top. Whether we blame the stereotype of anti-social and lonely hacker to a false construct of the media or Hollywood, it has certainly laid a particular foundation for the young generation: The ambitious, anti-political, fearless male entrepreneur.

This stereotype has certainly reinforced a culture of the powerful adolescent male whose computer knowledge is what sets his apart. Is this purely a marketing stratagem? Yes, it could be. But the real problem lies in the fact that those stereotypes have prescribed rigid roles to the young entrepreneur, and have interfered with women's ability to partake in that industry with confidence. I have been to meetings where I was frequently confronted with question of “don’t you code? It’s going to be hard to convince investors of how good your idea is” or “let’s have dinner instead” when I wanted to pitch my idea. The assumption is that investors are seeking the socially awkward, edgy young male genius. In this world, women have very little room to show their aptitudes.

These stereotypes are also reinforced by the dominant-male investment culture. While there are female organized incubators here and there, and crowd-funding efforts to fuel women’s startups, they are not sufficient. In most cases, female entrepreneurs rarely reach a round of venture capital. Silicon Valley lacks the organizational infrastructure to ensure women get the resources necessary (e.g., advice, networks, conferences, and finance) in order to break into the exclusive club of Angels and VCs.

Unfortunately, the investment landscape is composed of a small and wealthy community. These investors share information with each other. They advise each other on how to spend their money. Plus, their “big bucks” circulate from the hands of a few, and often come back to the same small group. These are people who frequented the same universities, coffee shops, and bars. It’s a private club virtually impossible to penetrate, and extremely intimidating for outsiders. Investment flows to the hands of the same men. To break down this vicious cycle, there is a strong need to diversify the investment portfolio everywhere in America and take into account a cross-gender perspective that places women front and center in this industry. 

Dantas is the founder of Notelr, a start-up online business focused on helping people improve their writing and web presentations.