(Photo by Flickr user WOCinTech Chat, used under a Creative Commons license)
This guest post is a part of Technical.ly's Women in Tech month.
It was 2006 when I was in a small crowded room in San Francisco for a panel with Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. When the Q&A began, I shot up my hand to ask Mark, “So when are you going to hire some social science researchers? You’re fundamentally changing the way we connect and communicate.”
He avoided my question.
Eventually, Zuckerberg hired researchers, but it was too late. The DNA of the company was set. Those researchers went on to work on academically interesting yet societally damaging projects like how content in the news feed could manipulate our emotions.
Today, Facebook is still mired trying to cross the long chasm between its technology and actual human behavior.
Throughout my 15-year career, I have been obsessed with how technology can be used to solve people’s problems. Unfortunately, in Silicon Valley and the broader tech community, the emphasis continues to skew toward the technology over the human.
This is a systemic flaw that has held us back from delivering groundbreaking innovation. While Moore’s Law is reaching an end and computing power is at its strongest, real-world economic indicators for productivity growth remain stagnant.
We need creators who are focused on human problems first. They understand that technology can address a problem but they will not chase technology first then search for a market second.
Who is up for the challenge? Women.
Pew Research’s Women and Leadership 2018 report found that across genders, 61 percent believe women are better at being compassionate and empathetic while 33 percent believe there’s no difference between the genders. Both men and women are pretty great at considering the societal impact of business decisions, but the same report shows that women are fantastic at working out compromises, being honest and ethical, and standing up for what they believe in.
In order to lead the way, we need women to start working from their strengths. Too often, the discussion of women in tech is focused on women’s weaknesses: not negotiating, only applying when they fit 100 percent of the criteria, asking for too little money, being too risk-averse, etc.
For each of these negative signals, there are opposing strengths that women can leverage to deliver lasting impact and innovation.
Two disclaimers before I begin:
- While gender is not binary, much of the research I found for this article is. I do my best to work with this fundamental flaw.
- I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for men; my support system for my entire career has been made up mostly of men. My peers agree: Some 37 percent of women cite their biggest professional mentor as male and 47 percent credit both genders equally. I hope that nothing in this article is a betrayal to them and my writing is not meant to be a critique.
Many women right now are not technical — and that’s OK
We’ve reached a point where creators do not have to be technical to understand how technology can solve a problem. As we wait for our investment in girls and STEM education to bear fruit, most female founders are not technical. That is OK.
A small 2015 study by Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, serial entrepreneur and president at Stub Hub, found that 84 percent of tech entrepreneur respondents did not have a STEM undergraduate degree. In a survey I conducted, of the people who identified as non-male, 97 percent said they were the nontechnical founder.
Our communities’ existing beliefs have always emphasized the technical founder. Yet, engineer-led thinking often leaves us with technology that has no real application. A non-technical innovator is more likely to start with a problem.
Founders who are aligned with solving real problems will find more success. Remember, human goals and needs seldom change but technology changes with time.
Women validate their assumptions
Our culture characterizes women as risk-averse. Daily, we reinforce the belief that women spend too much time waiting to feel 100 percent confident before moving forward.
This is just a belief and not entirely true: Pew Research found that across genders, 41 percent believe men are better at taking risks. Yet, 49 percent of the same audience believe there’s actually no difference between both genders.
Regardless, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking time to evaluate options and building confidence before investing significant funds in manufacturing or software development. In possibly questioning themselves, women thoroughly validate fundamental business assumptions, de-risking their endeavors early on.
Women state the reality
There is also a belief that women don’t sell themselves enough or boast about their accomplishments. There is truth to this. The majority of women rebuke a self-promoting leadership style: They prefer a more mission-oriented and communal approach.
It’s not wrong, it’s different. Overselling oneself can be extremely damaging. When you make commitments to others then underperform, you leave many people disappointed. Trust is broken for the long term.
Furthermore, women’s tendency to state the reality might not be coming from insecurity. It can from their core values. They are so mission-oriented and concerned with building trust with their partners that they want to make sure everyone understands what they have been able to do, what they intend to do and what they are capable of doing in the future.
Women are coachable
If women are too understated or lack confidence compared to men, the flipside is that women are open to feedback.
In a 2018 study, researchers looked into imposter syndrome across all genders. They found that “female students with high imposter feelings responded to harsh feedback by increasing their effort and showing superior performance.” These women were unaffected by anxiety when accountability increased.
Women apply others’ insights and are open to their advisors’, mentors’ and peers’ advice. This is an important character trait when I evaluate startups for funding. When presented with a challenge, women respond well and will look to others for support. Coachability is key.
Women do more with less
We bemoan the stats that women are not funded as much as men and when they are, they are not given as much money. Other minorities are affected as well. Actual behaviors from investors are so ingrained in the startup culture that these founders emphasize “We’re very capital efficient” when pitching.
Funded female founders are proving that they spend more wisely. Allyson Kapin, founder of Women Who Tech, shared these stats:
- Women-led private technology companies achieve 35 percent higher ROI and 12 percent higher revenue than startups run by men, according to the Kauffman Foundation.
- Companies in First Round Capital’s portfolio that were founded by women outperformed companies founded by men by 63 percent.
When we eventually hit the next economic downturn and the scarcity of investment dollars increases, might I suggest we focus on giving our limited resources to women? Also, let’s not wait until then. Let’s give women money now.
I was surprised when I went to Silicon Valley in 2005 (with a twinkle in my eye) to find that not everyone shared my obsession for how technology was designed for people. All around me, technology was designed for technology’s sake. I nudged, pushed and begged others to really understand the customer. I spent a lot of time heartbroken.
All of the female founders building tech startups give me hope. Instead of focusing on the negative signals, let’s start highlighting all of women’s strengths.
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