Gender bias is sneaky. It’s often subtle, yet pervasive – and the effects are far reaching.
We’ve heard a lot this summer about outright sexual harassment and discrimination against women in the tech industry. This is certainly disgraceful and I applaud the actions taken to remove the offenders from their positions. Yet, beyond these blatant examples, there is an implicit gender bias that has a cumulative effect in everyday decisions that stacks the deck against women and minorities.
This blog post will look at how we can help budding entrepreneurs to think differently – and how Educational Accelerator programs, like MIT’s delta v, are making changes to identify and root out these implicit biases.
Gender Bias in the Tech Industry
First, let’s look at some examples of gender bias in established tech industry companies. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, wrote an exclusive feature for Vanity Fair on “How to Break up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club.” She says she was “frustrated that an industry so quick to embrace change and the future can’t break free of its regrettable past.”
Wojcicki brings up sometimes subtle forms of bias that even well-intentioned male colleagues or managers may overlook. These include:
- being frequently interrupted or talked over;
- having decision-makers primarily addressing your male colleagues, even if they’re junior to you;
- working harder to receive the same recognition as your male peers;
- having your ideas ignored unless they’re rephrased by your male colleagues;
- worrying so much about being either “too nice” or “sharp elbowed” that it hurts your ability to be effective;
- frequently being asked how you manage your work-life balance; and
- not having peers who have been through similar situations to support you during tough times.
Wojcicki states that by employing more women at all levels of a company, it creates a virtuous cycle that has proven to address both explicit and implicit gender discrimination.
So, how can we work with startups to take these biases out of the picture from the very start of a company’s formation?
Experience of Women Entrepreneurs at MIT
At MIT, we embrace the philosophy that diversity fuels innovation. By bringing together people with different backgrounds and experiences – people who don’t necessarily think the same way or agree with you – you will spark innovation from these diverse perspectives, even though it may be more difficult working together at first.
We also believe that hiring more women is part of the solution. We’re proud that 45% of our 2017 delta v cohort are women, and 75% of our teams have at least one female co-founder. I reached out to several of these female entrepreneurs and asked one fundamental question:
What is your perspective on what is being done at MIT and elsewhere to help women entrepreneurs?
Overall, I heard that:
- Women are looking for role models and opportunities;
- It is less about the classes at MIT and more about experiencing – programs that allow students to challenge themselves; or the attraction of going out of their comfort zone was appealing to them;
- Many women have spent time with a non-profit, being motivated by a strong connection to the mission but it was often limiting as well;
- There was a strong feeling of wanting to do things or make things happen as a reason to become an entrepreneur;
- Several women had family members who were entrepreneurs, giving them a built-in role model;
- In general, role models were significant – and seeing a female role model or working with a team with a woman founder was a clear reason for their interest in entrepreneurship.
Three of the entrepreneurs in particular summed up the feelings that many have – a hesitancy and second-guessing that sometimes held them back. Yet, the power of role models and mentorship helped propel them forward.
“Even when I started GETRID I didn’t really think I could be an entrepreneur, and kept telling everyone for a while that this is just a school project. Only when we had external validation (customers) and official external support (FUSE) is when I started believing in our ability.”
“One of the most meaningful moments was in the FUSE accelerator when [Entrepreneur-in-Residence] Nick asked the cohort on the first day ‘Who made money today?’ When I was the only one who raised my hand, and everybody clapped, it helped me realized that we accomplished something and it might indicate that we have the ability to succeed.”
-Bar Pereg, Founder of GETRID
“As an engineer, I started asking questions about how things work. I wondered ‘Who is going to fix these big problems in the world?’ Then, it dawned on me … I can help fix these problems.”
“Having other women on my team was one of the defining highlights of my first experience in entrepreneurship. These women were visionary, incisive, and caring. They made the team more thoughtful and our work more rigorous. They showed me what I could accomplish with team members that trust one another, are secure in their own contributions, yet are eager to get to the next level.”
-Joanne Wong, Octant
Here at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, we can see some of these gender differences in action. As we practice for our big Demo Day company presentations, some of the entrepreneurs don’t want to “sell” their companies too strongly, because not everything is proven yet. We see this much more frequently with the female entrepreneurs than the male entrepreneurs. We let them know that investors want you to explain your vision and the milestones you’ll achieve to get there – and you need to be confident in your presentation and your abilities. This type of mentorship and hands-on experience is one of the ways we believe we can help female entrepreneurs effectively express their ideas and be considered equally alongside their male peers.
Here’s What Other Educational Institutions are Doing?
I also reached out to my personal and professional network and asked colleagues at other universities how they are tackling this issue. I believe their input is valuable and we can learn a lot from each other.
“The business case for diversity has already been made. VCs can play an important role. This article from Knowledge@Wharton captures different approaches to Gender Lens Investing. This includes seed funding in targeted sectors (e.g. improving women’s health care or financial inclusion), helping startups sharpen how they think about their market, influencing startups to include women on the board or on the leadership team, or looking closer at policies and practices within the company.”
-Dr. Candice Reimers, SPHR
At Stanford, Fern Mandelbaum will run three different entrepreneurship courses focused on diversity this coming year — one focused on Entrepreneurship from Diverse Perspectives, one focused on Building Diverse and Inclusive Organizations, and one about Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital from the Perspective of Women. They are popular courses (she’s increased from two last year) that address these topics, bringing in a wide range of diverse role models with entrepreneurial and/or investing experience
-Deb Whitman, Director, Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Stanford Graduate School of Business
Our hope is that by examining, and hopefully eliminating, these biases at the beginning – when a company is first formed – it will lead to more equality, parity, and diverse viewpoints as the company grows. What better place to start than at the university level?
Come see how we’ve tackled this issue head on at the MIT delta v Demo Day on September 9 – Join us at Kresge Auditorium, and we’ll also live-stream the presentations.
Trish Cotter is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at MIT and Director of the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator (GFSA) at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship where she mentors students through the accelerator process for their start-up ventures.