Where’s The Man Who’s Paying For All Of This? Three Reasons I’m A Coach At Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition

Seattle Startup Weekend Women’s Edition is this weekend and I’m a coach. But hey, where’s the men’s edition? Can’t women attend the regular startup weekends? Is this discrimination or what?

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.

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  1. Kate Matsudaira July 13, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Thanks for the great post Vanessa – and I love the title and could totally imagining that happening. I know I used to try to be one of the guys but I was never really successful at it – which just meant I was a fake guy that wasn’t accepted by the girls or the guys. Embracing who you are – manicures, shoes, and all – is the best thing you can do for yourself, and your success in business.

  2. Jill Whalen July 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Vanessa, I think things could be starting to change with the younger generation. My son went to an Advanced Math & Science Academy charter school for middle and high school and we were pleasantly surprised to see that it was about 50/50 girls and boys. Many of my son’s friends from school are very smart young women who are brilliant in so many aspects of math, science, programming, etc. Can’t wait to see what they all do when finished with college!

  3. Alex O'Neal July 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Excellent post. Like so many of us, I’ve been the sole woman in a tech department (though not recently, thank goodness!), the only girl in the “hard” (read: “real” or “serious,” per the male-dominated field) science course, etc., and found it challenging to network with those around me. But as you point out, you have to work with the network you have. I think the challenge makes women creative.

    Oddly, because I happened to have a name that’s comfortably assigned to both sexes, the online world made it easier for me to network in the tech field, though I didn’t realize it initially. I’ve three times met people in real life who were surprised I was female, two who actually said they wouldn’t have pursued a given project with me if they’d realized I was a woman – but they got over it quickly. The third time I saw it as a pattern, and gave it up by posting profile photos. I don’t think it’s hurt my career. I hope not.

    Your anecdote about the title quote has me wondering, though: how many people assume my husband’s the breadwinner in our home, and not me?

  4. Jenny Halasz July 13, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Vanessa, I’ve followed your work and your writing for years, and I’m reminded of why… it was always so nice to have a strong female role model in tech. I used to get so frustrated with men asking if I was the saleswoman/account manager/secretary when I was at meetings, but over time, I learned to laugh and say “no, I’m the techie, but I can help you too”. I’m truly excited to go to conferences and into agencies and see more and more women to work alongside with. I say we remain proud of our female techi-ness and hopefully more women will join us!

    And an anecdote of my own… my sweet husband had someone over to our house for business the other day. He said “wow, your business must be going great” and my husband responded “my wife is very smart and successful.” 🙂

  5. Andrea Hobby August 13, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Glad. I came across this post. I hope there is another Startup Weekend for Women in Seattle. I happened to be on the wait list.

  6. tra sua tran chau September 18, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Excellent post. Like so many of us, I’ve been the sole woman in a tech department (though not recently, thank goodness!), the only girl in the “hard” (read: “real” or “serious,” per the male-dominated field) science course, etc.,

  7. Marcelo Calbucci September 17, 2014 at 1:07 am

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for sharing. As an entrepreneur and someone hiring people in tech roles at a tech startup I find incredibly hard to break the cycle and get women to apply to work here. I’ve done pretty much everything I could imagine and I asked the women at my company and female friends for help. It’s tough. We get a few female applicants, but not enough. Despite all that I am highly optimistic that things are changing. I will take any tip or advice you have.

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