Why There Are So Few Women in Tech

Women with engineering or computer science degrees often disappear just as they are within grasp of reaching career peaks.

Of the top 100 tech companies in 2008, women accounted for a mere 6 percent of chief executives, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Of companies that raised venture capital in 2006, not even 7 percent were founded by women. Meanwhile the number of startups led by female chief executives that attracted funding last year was just 4.3 percent, according to VentureOne, a venture-investment tracker. As distressing as such facts are for the U.S. technology field, there is another, far-more-alarming number: Only 18 percent of college graduates with computer science degrees in 2008 were women—down from 37 percent in 1985, according to NCWIT.

Why such a deficiency? Several explanations are typically proffered, many of them simplistic. A dearth of role models for women in engineering and science is one. Another is the meager encouragement that parents and teachers offer grade-school-aged girls to pursue math and science. A third is often the matter of women's decisions to have children at the prime of their careers, which makes them less desirable to tech companies filling demanding roles.

These explanations are all true—and insufficient.

As the founder and chief executive officer of a technology company, Digital Link, I have experienced and personally contemplated this issue for more than 20 years. Digital Link manufactured networking equipment and was named one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in 1997 by Inc. magazine. At its start in 1985, Digital Link was a "bootstrap" operation funded by $50,000 in personal savings. We secured venture funding in 1988 and took the company public six years later.

During my career, I have mentored a handful of women who aspired to become technology entrepreneurs. I once advised a tech entrepreneur and CEO when she learned she was pregnant. How do you break that news to the board? (Very carefully.) I was also the primary seed investor for a tech company founded by a bright young woman who had graduated from Yale. When she got pregnant and could not travel, I pitched in for a few weeks to help her get the firm's research and development efforts back on track.

Health Is not the Issue

So I know this much: Women entrepreneurs confront an incredibly tricky road at technology companies. They face all the uncertainties a man faces in starting a tech company—and more. Both male and female entrepreneurs have the determination, although they lack experience. R&D schedules always slip and customers always want one more thing before they will buy the product. Entrepreneurs often have no management experience, nor do they know how to manage a board. Plus large money is at stake and emotions run high when things do not go right, which happens often in the early stages. On top of that, it becomes doubly hard when your intent—and your commitment—are questioned because you happen to be a woman who has a small child at home. Or God forbid, you are pregnant and suffering morning sickness. People may conclude that surely you cannot manage the pace of a tech firm.

A woman frequently fakes her health condition ("Nope, no morning sickness, thanks") and avoids mentioning at the board meeting that the baby kept her awake all night, lest it reflect on her ability to perform that demanding job. I would argue that a person hearing her story should be more impressed at how committed she is, on both personal and professional fronts—even more than a man. Its not that men do not face issues. They, however, understand other men and can relate to their difficulties.

When I went raising venture capital, I had just found out that I was pregnant. I was asked by the venture capitalists how I planned to handle the situation when the baby arrived. How many men, three weeks after their wife reports that she is pregnant, can tell you how much time they will spend with the baby so business is not adversely impacted? I assured them that I would hire a nanny.

Many years later, a woman CEO sought my advice when I was running Digital Link. Her company was not following the promised growth curve, the board was growing impatient with her, and she was hearing murmurs that maybe it was time for her to hire a new CEO. Atop all that, she had learned she was pregnant a couple of months earlier. She did not have the guts to tell her board. I congratulated her, which quickly brought tears to her eyes. She had put aside any fond thoughts of the baby and becoming a new mother because her investors would receive such news negatively. Should a woman surrender the right to celebrate her pregnancy and the arrival of a new child she will cherish always? After our discussions she had a renewed sense of confidence. She retained her CEO title, had her lovely daughter, and successfully sold her company. Venture capital funded her next company.

Confidence Is Essential to Strength

Another issue faces women in technology, dating to their earliest years. Why do girls not score as well in math and science when they reach high school? The phenomenon is something like this: At some stage in raising a boy, parents loosen their control and begin validating and admiring their son's voice and point of view. They have a harder time doing this with daughters, especially if the girls explore points of view that differ strongly from their own. As a result, and usually unwittingly, parents tend to retard the development of the confidence that girls need to master the critical thinking required in a rigorous math and science curriculum. The foundation of technological entrepreneurship happens to be "outside the box" thinking.

Confidence is also a critical factor once women reach the business world. When I speak to members of TiE , a not-for-profit that assists entrepreneurs, I often give the example of Indian-American men I witnessed some 20 years ago at a technical conference in Silicon Valley. When these men stood to ask questions, their voices were shaky; they could hear their own accent when speaking English. Perhaps they felt they were not being fully understood and felt inadequate in that place. As a result, their questions came across as weak, which discouraged them from posing further questions.

The same things happen to many women when they are in a male-dominated conference room or boardroom. Most people in that room never realize that they missed getting to know and interacting with a brilliant entrepreneur, engineer, manager, or scientist, all because she could not speak with confidence.

Women in technology do not lack the time or the skills for leadership roles. Given the benefit of the doubt and encouragement from their parents, teachers, mentors, and financial backers, they can move the earth.