Promoting Gender Equality in Startup Communities

Hey everyone! Very special guest blog post from Liz Callahan. Liz has some awesome insight, here it is (be sure to come to next 3/25 so you can talk to Liz in person

I am not an entrepreneur. I am not a “tech person.” Three years ago I couldn’t tell you what South by Southwest was, and I feel like the last person under 50 who gave up her flip phone. But now I find myself deeply involved in the Buffalo tech scene, and I am rooting for it to thrive.

I first landed inside Buffalo's tech/startup/entrepreneur scene the same way I end up in most ongoing projects: I’m not great at asking questions before I agree to something. But I stuck around not only because of my job at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, whose mission is to expand private sector jobs and investments in the Buffalo Niagara region, but also because I love the energy surrounding Buffalo’s burgeoning entrepreneur scene. But I'm worried about its lack of female leaders. It's an entrenched problem, here and across the U.S.

Just look to the news out of South by Southwest last week (which I now know to exist!), where some of the most theoretically enlightened figures in the industry, gathered in a like-minded swarm, couldn't help but serve as reminders of how skewed the tech field continues to be.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson were wrapping up an interactive panel discussion at SXSW on March 16th. The topic: the lack of racial and gender diversity in the technology industry. If you were only half-watching, half-phone-checking, you would have thought the talk fairly standard, even boring. But toward the end, an audience member rightly called out the two men for repeatedly interrupting their fellow panelist, US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.

Asked at that panel how she felt about the unconscious bias that affects women, Smith talked about how we all have unconscious bias, but that it is especially detrimental to women. She mentioned that because of that unconscious bias, men have been found to quietly appropriate the ideas of female counterparts, then noticeably accept all the credit. Smith also noted that differences in how men and women act can create inequality in the workplace. The CTO cited a study showing that if a job listing shows 10 requirements, a man tends to still apply if he only has three of them, whereas a woman will hold back unless she has seven.


Obviously, this problem is not special to Buffalo. According to a Fortune analysis, while women make up half the country’s workforce, just 6.2% of board seats are held by women within U.S.-based “unicorn” companies—those rare private firms whose value is more than $1 billion, based on fundraising. America’s 55 "unicorn companies" collectively represent 354 board director seats, and only 22 are held by women.

In Silicon Valley, it’s not much, if any, better than the workforce at large. Lack of workforce diversity has become a hot topic among all Silicon Valley companies, including Google. An analysis of Google’s own workforce last year found 70 percent of total workers are male and 60 percent are white. Among Google employees working in the “tech” sector, 83 percent are male.

This, despite the clear value women to startups. Women-led private technology companies are more capital-efficient, achieve 35% higher return on investment and bring in 12% higher revenue than male-owned companies when venture-backed.

The problem is clear; working against it is exhausting. I almost gave up on Buffalo’s “startup scene” entirely a few months back. I was burnt out. Sick of being thought of as “punchy”: nagging organizers to think about more female speakers, consciously introducing individuals and groups that could be great resources for one another, but feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

The last few events I had worked on had very little female leadership. At one event, four out of 23 committee members were women: 18%. Since that event, two of those women have left the region. I ended up coming to February’s Startup Grind with Marnie LaVigne who’s talk helped me remember how important it is for women to show up and be part of the community.

There are resources in Buffalo Niagara for female entrepreneurs: Girl Develop It!, Canisius College Women’s Business Center, National Association of Women Business Owners Buffalo Niagara (NAWBO), and the Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs Program to name a few. But how, as a community, do we persuade more women who are either starting their own business to get involved, and make more startups and growing businesses search for women to be an asset?

If you want to engage women (I’m hoping if you’re still reading you do!) in your startup community, it requires real out-of-your-way effort. Look around at your next startup-focused event or program. See if the majority of the faces are men—the same men you see over and over. If you don’t have many of the highly qualified women from the region at your event and you want to change that, you may need to change what you are doing.

Some tips for planning your next event:

  • Find a woman willing to be your co–organizer and increase the visibility of your female leadership. This makes it is obvious that this isn’t going to be a slightly different “boys club”.

  • Put more women on your advisory board and team so they can encourage and invite other women.

  • Invite more women than you think will come. Connect with multiple women’s organizations to help you get the word out.

  • Take a hard look at your “unconscious bias”. This is probably the hardest, but one of the most important, things to do. When we correct for these biases, we get better results. Think about how you communicate to (interrupting, dominating the conversation, not listening) and about (have you ever called an assertive woman “demanding”?) women in your community.

  • Make everyone feel welcome at your event. Don’t treat your regular startup events as a chance to catch up with people you already know. Encourage your committee and advisory board to reach out to as many new people as possible and most importantly: follow up with the people you meet!