Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Are Women Bad for Start-ups? You've Got To Be Kidding...

Posted by Tom Foremski - August 7, 2011

By Vanessa Camones, PR veteran and founder of theMIX agency.

Women have made astounding advances in the workforce in the past fifty years. Even in the tech sector, traditionally an enclave of geeky guys, women have progressed from support roles to becoming respected builders, leaders and innovators.

We're still a minority, but no longer an anomaly.

So it bothers me, and a lot of my female colleagues, to see another woman argue that we still don't belong. In a recent BNET opinion piece, former startup founder Penelope Trunk claims that if you're a man, you shouldn't put a woman on your founding team.

Startups, she reasons, are a special kind of business that can't afford the "diversity" of having a woman on the team. Her reasons are straight from the 1960s: Women are a distraction! They have different points of view! They cry and throw fits! They're "difficult!"

She links to a previous column in which she claims women undermine startups because they want to have kids, and their male partners can't be trusted to stay at home and raise them. It reads so much like an episode of "Mad Men" that I imagined her pausing to light a cigarette between paragraphs.

Trunk's claim that women don't belong at startups is conspicuously free of real-world examples other than her own. The truth out there is that plenty of women do just great at running startups or being major contributors.

Clara Shih, the CEO of Hearsay Social, just closed an $18 million B round of funding. Her co-founder is a man, by the way. Is she difficult? Probably -- because that's how you get to $18 million. But she's so good at what she does that the former Microsoft engineer's book on Facebook-based marketing is being used as a textbook at Harvard Business School.

Shih says that being a woman does give her a different perspective on business situations, but that's a good thing.

"We approach every big decision from two completely different viewpoints," she says of the dynamic with her co-founder. "I'm sure gender plays a role in these differences, and we use that to our advantage. So far we've made some pretty good decisions. To suggest that men shouldn't found companies with women is not only just inaccurate, it is tremendously offensive and a huge step backward from the progress that us female founders have worked so hard to reach."

Shih isn't the only successful woman working alongside men in startups. Genetic testing firm 23andme was founded by Linda Avey and Anne Wojciki, who continues to run the company after raising over $50 million in funding.

Two of Meebo's three founders are women. Caterina Fake, co-founded Flickr with Stewart Butterfield, and she's now on to her third startup.

Diane Greene co-founded VMware with Ed Bugnion and then ran the company for 10 years. And even Facebook bright-boy Mark Zuckerberg admits that his COO Sheryl Sandberg has been crucial to the company's still-growing success.

Some of these women have had to overcome the sort of gender bias that Trunk seems eager to perpetuate. But there's good news: The boys-only culture at startups is on the wane.

Leah Busque, whose company TaskRabbit is profiled in the current issue of Wired magazine, says her experience has been refreshingly different from that of Trunk. "I haven't had to confront any gender-specific issues over my nearly 10-year career, both at IBM and as an entrepreneur," she told me. "No gender-inspired friction or distraction."

That's important for aspiring female founders to know. Not only can you succeed in the grueling world of startups, but you will also find that the kind of man who can't stand to work for -- or with -- a woman, isn't the norm anymore. And if you start your own company, you have a handy option for dealing with a guy like that: Fire him.


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