That women are underrepresented in the startup community is hardly news. Just 1.3% of percent of founders at privately held, venture-backed companies are women, according to a 2012 Dow Jones study titled Women at the Wheel. After all these years, the face of tech startups is still a young guy with fashionable stubble and thick black glasses.
I’d like to think my company is anything but a stodgy old boys club. As a social media company, the heart of our business is building relationships. Our employees are by and large young, progressive and open-minded.
But the numbers don’t lie. Recently, out of every 10 people interviewed for a tech position at our office, roughly nine were men. At that time, we had approximately 50 engineers and developers on our team, and fewer than 20 of them were women. (By contrast, the gender breakdown is closer to 50-50 for other departments.) Figuring out why this is and what can be done about it, however, isn’t easy.
You can point to the scarcity of female role models in tech, though thankfully high-profile leaders like Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are slowly changing that. Or you can blame it on the obstacles to building a culture of entrepreneurialism among women: According to a recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, more than half of women doubt their abilities to start a business, while men report having a much more robust professional network for advice and inspiration. This is despite the fact that “at all levels, women are rated higher in 12 of the 16 competencies that go into outstanding leadership,” according to a 2012 report by Harvard Business Review.
But it’s hard to get around a simple reality: Computer science, the backbone of any tech startup, is still a male-dominated field. (Of course, you don’t have to be brilliant programmer to launch a startup … but it definitely helps to understand code on some level.) Women comprise fewer than 30 percent of U.S. computer science and engineering programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, according to the National Science Foundation. Coding, in particular has traditionally been seen as a guys’ thing. But does it have to be?
We also host regular meetups of Ladies Learning Code, a Toronto-based initiative that has introduced thousands of women to programming and technical skills since 2011. Importantly, it’s not all code. Mentors introduce themselves, share their personal stories and offer insight on ways to thrive as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Creating supportive environments like these to learn computer science skills is a start. But truly narrowing the gender gap in the startup community—like the solution to so many challenges— may come down in large part to how we educate children. Providing better computer science education in public schools to kids, and encouraging girls to participate, seems one of the best ways to rewrite stereotypes about tech and really break open the old boys club.
To that end, Ladies Learning Code recently introduced Girls Learning Code, camps and workshops aimed specifically at 8- to 13- and 13- to 17-year-old girls. With a focus on teamwork, creativity and technology, the program aims to help girls see tech as a medium for self-expression and a means of changing the world. As explained by Emma Nemtin, marketing director for tech company Hubba and one of the organization’s mentors: “By giving the girls a great learning experience, putting them in a room with dozens of other girls who also think technology is cool, giving them access to mentors and role models, and then showing them examples of what it can mean to work in tech, we’re doing everything we can to ensure that these girls grow up knowing that they have a choice . . . .”
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Author: Ryan Holmes is the CEO of Hootsuite.
Image: A woman walks on the esplanade of La Defense, in the financial and business district in La Defense, west of Paris, April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes.