Yes, it is Harry Potter’s Emma Watson who takes the long-needed step of reclaiming the power of the word “feminism” and declaring unequivocally that feminism wants women and men to thrive.
Here in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, everyone loves a startup. It conjures up visions of dedicated, if not fanatical, clusters of men working all hours to create the next big thing. And along the way, all becoming billionaires.
There are many things wrong with that stereotype, as there are with all stereotypes. The one that interests me the most is the assumption that the founders are men. The Kauffman Foundation has declared this to be the Decade of the Woman Entrepreneur. Bloggers talk about a surge in female startups. Why and why now?
The most often cited explanation is the “pipeline.”
At the start of the decade women represented more than 70 percent of the year’s Valedictorians. In undergraduate and graduate education, they now outnumber men nearly three to two. More than half of the nation’s Ph.D.s are awarded to women.
It is the underlying assumption that women, through their education, have now proved themself capable of founding companies. That the female Valedictorians and the Ph.D.s of the country are ready to join the elite ranks of the Entrepreneur.
But no-one ever thought men had to be academic stars to found companies, garner funding, and achieve wealth and power. And what founder ever said, finally I have enough education to start a company. On the contrary, we celebrate the “dropouts” who start the FaceBooks and Googles of the world. See this article for interesting reading on dropout billionaires – all men.
Read any of the thousands of articles that tell you what makes a successful entrepreneur. No-one mentions education or any particular achievement as a prerequisite. Read these delightful musings of founders on what makes a startup a startup and you catch a glimpse of useful traits and attitudes, not qualifications and certificates.
So why does the pipeline argument seem so appropriate to so many people, women and men alike?
I say it has something to do with another now well-established gender-based fact. Both men and women undervalue and underestimate women. The latest proof of this deplorable fact is the research by two women showing that in a mixed-gender setting, women underestimate their own contributions (July 2013).
A woman often feels an obligation to be better prepared, better educated, better equipped all round than a man, any man, to take on a challenge.
I met a woman once who founded a successful company that provided a host of services for Silicon Valley hires from outside the USA. The company taught English as a Second Language, accent modification, social integration workshops, and did translations. I discovered she had no university degree and I was impressed that she did not expect herself to be an expert in language, rather knowing how to hire the right people. But it turned out she was mortified by her lack of credentials and afraid someone would “find her out.” Even with success, she was hard on herself for her perceived inadequacy.
As I have pointed out in another context, women are not stupid or weak. We did not conjure these stringent expectations out of thin air. By and large we have them because we encounter them repeatedly in a business and academic culture still dominated by men.
So what is the point I actually want to make? It is this. Women are founding startups not because the time is right with enough of us well educated enough to take on the challenge of a startup. It is also not because we (men and women alike) have learned how to judge the expertise and contributions of men and women evenhandedly. It is also not because some critial mass has been achieved that makes the startup culture welcoming to women; the numbers are appallingly low.
What I have noticed this past decade is the emergence of young women who refuse to define themselves by what they don’t know and don’t have. No programming experience? So what. I will teach myself. Limited financial resources? So what. I will bootstrap the operation, no matter how small I have to start.
There will be no shortage of critics pointing out what a woman doesn’t have. And the critics sadly might be the same people – family members, friends, even mentors – who are her biggest supporters. But she is learning to trust her own optimism and confidence and have her self-image be the one that defines who she is to all around.