Tech firms including Uber, IBM and Alibaba have signed a pledge to ensure that at least 30% of their management boards are made up of women by 2020. But why is the number of women in the tech industry so low? In her book Alpha Girls, Julian Guthrie tells the stories of a group of women who, outnumbered and underestimated, helped launch the modern computer industry. In this extract from Alpha Girls, Guthrie looks at why there are so few women in tech.
The idea for Alpha Girls has roots in my last book, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight. As I travelled around the country talking to groups of engineers, entrepreneurs, and scientists, I kept asking myself one question: Where are all the women? In crowds big and small, there would be only a handful of women.
I began to research the many fields where women are underrepresented, and I soon homed in on venture capital as an industry that is not well known but has enormous influence. Venture capital matters more than just about any other part of tech, and the people who control the cash are men. Venture capitalists invest in the ideas of entrepreneurs. Successful start-ups shape and change how we live, from the way we communicate to the technology we use, from the cars we drive to the breakthrough medical treatments we may one day need.
When I started my research in late 2016, just 6 per cent of investing partners at venture capital firms were women, and about 2 per cent of venture dollars went to companies founded by women. Of the $130 billion that venture capital firms invested last year, a paltry $2.6 billion went to women. I wanted to know: What do such hidden inequalities mean for the rest of the world?
Melinda Gates put it most succinctly when she told me, “If venture doesn’t diversify, tech won’t diversify.” Gates, an engineer and co-chair with her husband of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently turned her attention to improving diversity in tech. Her focus on diversity came after doing extensive work in the developing world, where she saw how empowered women transform societies. She began to wonder, “How far has the United States come on these issues?” The answer was “not far enough.” In her mind, reforming tech would have to begin with venture capital.
In the cloistered good old boys’ club of Silicon Valley, male VCs invite other male VCs in on deals and fund male founders. The male founders go on to hire men who look like them. When big companies acquire start-ups, the male-heavy workforce is absorbed into a bigger male-heavy company. This means that the software, hardware, apps, social media, AI, and more are being created, funded, and run by men.
But improving the gender balance is not only about equality — it’s also about a better bottom line and a thriving global economy. Women represent half of the world’s population and half of its potential. Research shows that companies with more diversity, particularly with more women in leadership, offer higher returns on capital and greater innovation than firms without this leadership. Companies with more women at the executive and board levels perform better. Start-ups with at least one female founder see a better return on their investments. Companies that do the best with gender diversity on their executive teams are statistically more likely to have above-average profitability.
Alpha Girls by Julian Gurthrie is out now (Piatkus, £14.99).
Image: Supplied by publisher