Female Founders



Today's San Jose Mercury News has an article reporting that there
are now zero female CEOs at top Silicon Valley tech firms.  I spoke
with the reporter for this piece and shared a few Y Combinator
statistics. Between the 102 startups we've funded-- about 250
people total-- only 7 of the founders have been female.

This ratio is reflective of our applicant pool. There just don't
seem to be a lot of women founding tech startups. This is not new
news to me-- I struggled to find women to interview for Founders at Work, and I've thought a lot about this topic.  I don't have time now to share all my thoughts in depth, but I'd like to point out that women who want to start startups shouldn't be discouraged by statistics like this.

By nature, startups are very non-discriminatory. As a founder, your success is directly tied to the success of your product. You must please the market, not your boss or other executives. The market doesn't care how old, what race, religion or what gender you are. It cares if the product is actually good.

So make something people want, and try not to let depressing
statistics hold you back.

Since the market IS so completely non-discriminatory, why do you think that there are so few women starting tech companies?

In my experience, the male and female hackers that I've met have been about equal in terms of ability, but there are just far fewer females that seem drawn to this line of work (a bit less than 1:10). Obviously, there is *some* kind of cause. I've often wondered if there is a cultural bias against technical females, or perhaps our math and technical education is biased towards a male viewpoint, or perhaps there is just something about hacking that a greater percentage of men find appealing.

I'm not sure, but the cultural bias angle seems a bit specious; ESR aside, most technical types are pretty accepting. While it's un-PC, I think that the "more men like hacking" might have something to it, but it's not clear to me why that would be. The educational theory seems very possible as well, especially since early experience in a subject tends to point a kid in a certain direction, and then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

For that matter, "more men like hacking" and "math is taught in a boy-centric way" would sort of feed into one another.


Because startups tend to be technical, I think the same factors that affect other areas are at work here. I've seen similar ratios of women to men in most math classes, computer science classes, small companies, and large companies.

The effect is very broad.

I'd like to see the ratios in MBA programs versus C level position in companies, and how that changed with company age and size.

My cofounder of Tipjoy, Abby, is also our CEO. There has been a bit of bias about our being married, but is very difficult to gauge and so very difficult to confront. How do you know if a meeting didn't happen because of disinterest or because of some bias? We never will - though I'm strongly biased towards the former.

So I think you're totally right - whatever biases there are out there, the product and the market's reaction to it matter most of all.


What we need is a test.

If the market is less discriminatory towards women than investors or corporate structure, then one would expect, on average, the following effects (at first order):

1) Of the founders of successful startups, women will have

a) spent more time to successfully raise funds.
b) been rejected more often with similar credentials.

2) Of the female founders who start startups, they will be more successful, by a greater margin than men in

a) Markets with simpler, direct to consumer distribution channels
b) Markets with more traditional business interaction, but with many female leaders,

and less successful, by a greater margin than men in

c) Business to business markets in male dominated areas, and
d) Markets with a complicated, male dominated distribution channel.

Does this test pass?


Jessica - if you're ever looking for a female founder to interview, you should get in touch with our company's founder, Gillian Muessig (she's also my Mom). She started the company way back in 1981 and we've transitioned from graphic design to webdev to SEO and now into Internet Marketing tools and have venture backing. She's amazing - smart, funny, talented, raised 3 kids and built a company that's growing like wildfire.

Of course, I might be a little biased :)

I am worried about the issue you're addressing - I certainly think both the VC world and the tech world are male-dominated and this leads to natural institutional biases that hurt the equality of the industry.

Jose Hevia

My theory:

Although we have roughly the same mind capabilities, we don't have the same interest:

- We men LOVE RISK. That's right we love adventure, the unexpected on average far more than women.
- We LOVE MACHINES on average far more than women. On average you like interpersonal links far more than men.
- We LOVE PROBLEM SOLVING, we are more rational, less emotional than women.

All this things are per se. We don't like risk, or cars or computers because of the money, position-benefits you gain from them, whatever, we love this because is there. Bill Gates hooked with the computer the first day it saw it.

@Danielle: Please stop the feminist argument-> Women will be rejected by male, you know what? We men like women, we don't hate them.

When I use reddit, digg, google, I don't care if it's done by a female worker or a male one. Nobody cares. People only cares about quality.

I love programming and CAN'T STOP doing it. I need it in my life the same way a writer needs to write. I thought I was different because I was a minority in my environment , later I discovered that in my University LUG(Linux users group) everybody had this interest.

From a population of 2500, we were a minority of 300. Something like 290 boys and 10 girls.

Those people that love computers and spend time with them later in live will be able to do things with them the other people can't. The people that not will envy the money(benefits) a startup founder get from his company, once everything works, but they won't take their selves he risk, time and resources to make it happen.


As a female founder, I'm sure this is likely an issue close to your heart :) Given enough data, your test would indeed show if the market is less significantly less discriminatory than corporate structures.

One problem with such a test is that just finding a statistically significant number of female startup founders is incredibly difficult. There seems to be about a 10:1 M:F ratio is almost ALL areas of technology, and most hackers don't start companies.

Also, it may well be that corporate structures -- in technical fields, at least -- are not significantly discriminatory, and the test would show no difference between the two.


Even if more men have a predilection for starting companies, that does not in any way imply that the women who DO start companies are significantly different in any relevant way from the men who do so.

There is a WORLD of difference between saying "men like more risk" and "more men like risk". The Dani Fongs and Abby Kirigins of the world may be more rare than their male counterparts, but it is factually unjustified to suggest that they are less rational, adventure-seeking, or machine-loving.

Let's say that the 10:1 ratio is a fact. (I'm not 100% sure that it is; that's just slightly more than anecdotal evidence). JL is saying that they're seeing roughly that same ratio among startup founders. That would mean that there are 10x as many non-startup-founding men, as well.

In other words, it would appear that when you control for hackerly tendencies, women have roughly the same breakdown of abilities and motivations as the men. It's just that far fewer women *enter* the field in the first place. That, to me, is very interesting, and worth further study.


I'm not convinced that these statistics are all that depressing. Makers should be judged by their creations, not what's in their pants. (Of course, for the many single straight male engineers spending all their time at work, it does limit the dating pool terribly, which can be a little depressing, I suppose.)



I'm simply pointing out that *if* anti-female discrimination exists less within certain markets, we can predict certain results about which companies succeed or fail, in a falsifiable way. By applying this test we can become more or less certain that discrimination exists. I'm not asserting that discrimination is prevalent. There is an important distinction.

But if you're saying that this isn't *even worth asking*, then you've proven yourself false by direct internal contradiction. This would be a specific example of a man rejecting the thought of a woman without allowing even the consideration of whether the question is worthy of investigation.


I don't think it's at all surprising there are so few women starting or running companies. Look at what stats we have. Of women who reach CxO level, fewer than half are married and/or have children compared with over 85% of men in the same position. The challenges of succeeding in work and life are very different and all the social and business 'norms' are geared towards men being at the top.


I'd have to disagree with your argument that men are less emotional. That myth has been blown out the water since working with them :-) A different kind of emotion maybe - more competitive and aggressive than self-doubting and prone to melt down. But rationality is usually left to the machines. Look to the leaders of any country for plenty of examples of rationality missing in action.


Part of the explanation is undoubtedly the lower number of women in technology. The causes of that is another question. It is observably at least partly social conditioning from childhood.

I do think it is true that men take more risks (studies of how men and women invest have confirmed this - cannot find a url to cite, sorry). I would attribute that to greater social pressure on men to "achieve" in financial terms.

@Danielle. A weakness in your test is the interaction between the two parts: if women find it harder to raise funds that may directly lead to them being more successful once they do get funding, because only the best will get as far as getting the funding.

On the other hand the difference in women's success rates in the two types of markets would definitely tell us something.

Chris Ryland

Why is it so taboo to say that women are different from men by nature?

And what's so great about programming/science in general that women should want to enter the field?

Maybe they have a natural bent for more rewarding and important activities.

Jose Hevia

@Isaac That's what I said. I only put my data over the table and made generalizations, every generalization is only this.

In an open organization about tech(There was another about making electronics roughly with the same ratios), few women enter, simply because they are not interested as much as in others like travel organization(in BEST you will find ratios on par):

and I'm simply pointing out that one of the good things about tech is that nobody cares if you are black, white, tall or short, if you can do a better thing that others you are in.

Specially in a startup, nobody cares, they care about your product not you. On Internet nobody knows you are a dog.

@Shanon :-)
"But rationality is usually left to the machines"
What makes us human is rationality. :-) Any mammal has emotions, from dogs to cows. I agree with you the best person is the one that has their physical and mental(logical and emotional)parts perfect developed.

Jose Hevia

I'm simply saying there is a Billy Elliot's effect in tech.

There is certainly discrimination within venture capital. I have been in meetings where people literally could not make eye contact with me.

@Graeme: I would not say that fundraising is some sort of strength test for women and that the ones who pass will be more successful. Being able to take abuse doesn't improve your product. If anything I'd say that it just gets you better investors, since if they invest in you they're better people than the ones who passed. It's not a strength test for future success as much as it's a ethics test for VCs.


Isaac: Yes, there is a cause. Biology. There are women at the highest echelons of almost every sector now. The numbers are lower, but they are there. These women are "extraordinary." They are a lot further from the gender median than high-achieving males are from theirs.

Being an extraordinarily high achiever requires commitment and single-mindedness. Women can do this, but it is not sexist to note that biologically women are not optimized to single-mindedness. At a natural level, women are focused (mostly by biology, partly by culture) on society, caring for groups, raising children, and so forth. They need to be good in a lot of areas, rather than extraordinary in one.

Men, on the other hand, have little biological need to avoid being single-minded. The species would continue to thrive even if ALL men were 100% focused on their careers and just had sex with random women on a regular basis. On the flip side, the species would totally fail if ALL women were 100% focused on their careers and chose work over reproduction.

It's biology. Not discrimination.. at least, unless you count mother nature as some sort of entity who discriminates by making us as we are.


Making something "people want" without capital is like going to Las Vegas. Sure you can get lucky, but odds are absolutely against you. Might as well just create the great products and just hand them over to better funded companies. If women don't have access to capital at the same rates as men do, women will fail at greater rates than men will.


@Peter Cooper:
Your statement (see bottom of post) made me laugh. Would the species fail if EITHER women or men were 100% focused on their careers and "just had sex with random" partners? Ha, no.

Reproduction would still happen, but kids need someone to raise them, so regardless of gender, someone needs to look after them. Realize that the implication of your statement is that somehow, ALL MEN are unfit parents who could never raise children without female assistance.

Anyway: I agree with Jose. Many women are risk-adverse when it comes to business choices. Note that women are traditionally big risk-takers in their personal lives, leaving the workforce to depend on their partner's income. This is not exactly a conservatie financial strategy. So weomen are not entirely risk-adverse -- just risk-adverse when it comes to taking a chance on ourselves. Kind of sad, no? Makes you wonder why.

We also have historically tended to be less-technical, although I think that that's changing. I'm extremely geeky and passionate about computer dorkery, and my younger female cousin is all over the social networks and has a fluency with technology that I envy.

As for your other claim: that men love problem-solving (and, by inferrence, women don't). Personally, I love problem-solving, and I don't see what it has to do with emotion. Often, the biggest problems that company founders find are personnel problems that require sensitivy, empathy...and -- oh gosh, emotions! If you were regerring to mathmatical problems, be aware that you're also talking to someone who reads books on word problems for fun.

Does this make me unusual? An extraordinary woman? I would hope so, but since successful founders are exceptional, you might not want to discard people like me from your sample set.


"Men, on the other hand, have little biological need to avoid being single-minded. The species would continue to thrive even if ALL men were 100% focused on their careers and just had sex with random women on a regular basis. On the flip side, the species would totally fail if ALL women were 100% focused on their careers and chose work over reproduction."


Based on research from a group out of Carnegie Mellon, females get disengaged from programming early. Females tend to have to have a REASON to program, and early programming courses just don't have sufficient reasoning for women. To address this, the CMU group has created this game: http://www.alice.org/

It seems to be working (more women are staying in CS after having having a courses that's taught with Alice). Also, other schools are picking this approach up.


We started a month ago with our business magazine for female internet heroes and have profiled already many female founders of internet startups. Our database comprises currently 400 female internet heroes, female VC's, CxO's and founders of internet companies.


@ Jose

Nope, we're not rational. To think, organise and create tools out of raw materials to do our work for us is what separates us from animals. And it's a thin line of difference... but that's a whole other debate :-)

We rationalise our decisions, but that is not the same as being rational. Game theory and the tragedy of the commons are easy ways to demonstrate how irrational we are in our decision making. Psychologists and neuroscientists can prove that our subconscious reacts (often based on emotion) and our conscious mind rationalises the reaction.

The trolley test is a simple example - see http://www.joiningdots.net/blog/2005/12/knowledge-is-personal.html

If we were rational, we'd always achieve optimal outcomes. Instead, we rarely do. But hey, it makes life more interesting.


I should add, re: the thin line of difference between us and animals (for those who may be offended at the suggestion that we're not so different), that thin line creates exponential changes. Whilst we should be worried if the chimps discover fire and wheels, we've still got a few centuries head start :-)


At the risk of being read as a mysoginist, I think a better question to ask is "Does it even matter?"

I suspect that the number of women that start and run their own businesses is much closer to 50-50 overall than it is in the technology sector alone. Is that significant? I don't think so. For some bizarre reason, technophiles and their pundits often forget that there's a much bigger world out there than is brought to you via the intertubes.

My mother, for instance, started her own business in December of 2006. She quit her job in March 2007. For FY2007, she did just over $100K in business. She's on track to do over $1 million this year, and quite likely somewhere around $2-3 million next year. She's not in the technology sector, though she did work for an engineering company for 22 years, and in her last position, she was managing their transition to Oracle.

So while the number of women in science and engineering might concern some people, it doesn't concern me. At all. After all, we don't see people pushing for more male enrollment in nursing school or any other pink collar job, do we? So why do we feel it necessary to push for more women in science and engineering?

Now, if there are barriers to entry specific to women, that's one thing. But I think those have largely been abolished beyond the gawking at women by their male counterparts, which I know for a certainty exists. That sucks, I know, but it's not a barrier to entry. It's something you put up with once you're finished.

My bigger concern is the fact that boys are now being left behind. There are more women in college than there are men, and that ratio continues to slide in women's favor. Where's the outrage there? Why must education be seen as zero-sum when it clearly is not? Why can't both sides get the help they need?


A few of us women launched Women 2.0 (www.women2.org) in 2006, this (for me), outside my day-time gigs at 2 “hot” Silicon Valley startups. From our growing member base, there IS a burning desire for women to launch high growth businesses. At our Annual Business Plan competition, PITCH, we’ve seen, over 2 years, more than 200 early-stage business plan submissions and the founding team is at least 50% female.

At Women 2.0, we interact with current and future female entrepreneurs and more than anything they only ask for a few things: role models (tired of looking at Sergey, or Dell or Gates for inspiration), connectivity to the funding world, and some guidance – tactical and practical. This is what we try to offer through our programming.

The rest of the time, we are hands off and have seen women with a vague idea, reach a prototype, launch a beta and some are now out fundraising and growing their ventures.
It won’t be long before one of these startups becomes a “top silicon valley startup” – Let’s all consider on what can be done, rather than what is. There is a new generation of women who ARE in fact risk-takers, technically savvy (if not CS, ENG majors) and passionate to make a difference in the world. Let’s empower them.

Women 2.0, among other organizations, play a catalytic role in this empowerment.


I agree with you that not enough women consider it as an option.I never knew anything about startups until a friend of mine who's a programmer showed me about it i think its harder in the uk as theres nothing like silicone valley here,but thank you for the useful information its definately been an eye opener and useful for the project im working on =)


"Between the 102 startups we've funded-- about 250
people total-- only 7 of the founders have been female."

Less are black founders, though; correct?

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