About Vanessa FoxI'm founder and CEO of Nine By Blue. I also write and speak about the search engine industry and searcher behavior. I'm fascinated by our searching culture and how it's shifted the way we seek out and consume information. I used to work at Google, where I built Webmaster Central and helped launch sitemaps.org.
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July 10, 2012
Where’s The Man Who’s Paying For All Of This? Three Reasons I’m A Coach At Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition
Our Network is Based On Who We Know (And Who Our Network Knows)
We talk a lot about ratios. That tech conference you just went to had 35 male speakers and 2 women speakers. That startup you just read about has only one woman employee. And she’s the admin. We talk about all kinds of reasons for this (women don’t pitch to speak; we don’t encourage women to take science and match classes in seventh grade; women tend to interrupt their careers to have babies….) but one obvious fact is that we only know who we know.
Finding good speakers and good employees and good friends and good people for anything is a lot about first, the hard work of finding them and next, the hard work of figuring out if they’re the right fit. But even when we cast a wide net with the best of intentions, we tend to start with our network. The people we know and trust. And often, we just so happen to hang out a lot with people who are the same gender as we are. So that’s who we know. And that’s who they know. And if conferences and startups and engineering departments have a high ratio of men, it’s likely they mostly know more men. So it’s just reality that searches often start with networks comprised largely of men.
Last year, I realized I had twelve or so people working for me in either permanent or contract roles and only two of them were men. One of which was the admin. Were I a male founder with nearly all male employees, someone might have cried foul, but the truth was that my staffing selections were not on purpose. I didn’t set out to find women to work for me and I didn’t seek out a female attorney or CFO consultant, but that’s just how things ended up. Why? Because while I have a strong network of both men and women, I just happen to have more women friends. And they happen to have more women friends. So when I ask around for recommendations, I end up largely with a pool of women candidates.
Helping women at an event like this startup weekend get more comfortable (see the third point for more on this) being involved with more events is one step in connecting the dots so a mostly male network and a mostly female network can become a larger connected network. Like me, many of the participants and mentors and judges at this event likely are connected to both men and women, and this event helps get women just starting out on everyone’s radar. Which in turn helps everyone because when you’re looking for a diverse group of speakers or employees or friends, that hard work of finding them gets a bit easier when you have networks of both men and women to reach out to.
Even Without Discrimination, There Can Be Unconscious Bias
Remember those old gender discrimination exercises where you had to tell a story about a doctor and a nurse and the point was to show that most people called the doctor “he” and the nurse “she”? I don’t know if that still happens but I know that we (as an American tech culture) mostly think we’re beyond that. I don’t want to spend too much time telling stories that refute that perception since the very definition of unconscious means that you don’t see it even if it’s right in front you, so I’ll just share this one story.
Last week, I had a mobile detailing service out to my house to wash my car. I was talking to the very nice guy who was managing the effort about his plans to start his own small business and he was asking for my advice and I can promise you that he respected my opinions and didn’t value them any less because I’m a woman.
And yet. At one point he said to me “I couldn’t help but notice you’re not wearing a ring.” And then he explained why he was asking. He motioned at my house and said (after asking for my advice as a business owner remember), “I was just wondering, where is the man who is paying for all of this?”
You Feel More Confident When You Feel Less Alone
Without question, effective networking can give a boost to someone who wants to be be successful in today’s startup culture (whether as a founder or an employee). And it can be scary for everyone (both men and women) to go to an event such as a startup weekend for the first time — not knowing what to expect, not knowing anyone. But it can be even harder when you feel completely different from everyone else. A couple of weeks ago, an employee of mine was talking to me about a Rails Camp he was going to that weekend. He kept using male nouns and pronouns to refer to the group that would be there. Finally, I interrupted him. “You mean the men and women…” Well no, he told me. Only guys have signed up.
A few years ago when I still worked at Google, I was at a luncheon at the Grace Hopper conference for the women that Google had sponsored to attend. I was talking to one college student who told me how grateful she was for the opportunity to be there because the entire time she’d been at college, she’d never had another woman in her computer science class. She’d never had the opportunity to collaborate with a woman. Ever.
I’m not saying that women can’t hack it in environments with a lot of men, I’m just saying it’s nice sometimes to be reminded that other women are out there. I don’t want to get into stereotypes about how men and women are different, but I think it’s telling that I’ve been avoiding telling the following story in this post, even though I’m a confident, successful woman in tech, I have large networks of both men and women, and I don’t really care if you know that I went shoe shopping last weekend.
Years and years ago (I mean it — this was like 1995 in the telecom corridor of Dallas) I started a new job at a startup that made testing equipment for SS7 networks. On my first day, a woman rushed up to me. “I”m so glad another woman finally works here. Finally, I have someone to get manicures with!”
I resisted telling that story because I didn’t want this post to about women getting manicures, but you know what? In part, that’s exactly what this post is about. At the end of a hard work day, a woman can’t always turn to a male coworker and ask him if he wants to go grab a drink and talk through things. In some situations, of course. But in many others, I’m sorry, but she just can’t. And we all need people we can turn to.
If this event helps a few more people find someone they can turn to, I’m all for it.