Goodwin Insights May 23, 2017

For Women in Tech, Venture Capital, and Life Sciences Gender Barriers Persist Amid Flickers of Hope

Recent stories of harassment, discrimination, pay inequity and intimidation from women at some of the world’s largest technology companies have become as frequent as they have been alarming. Long underrepresented in the science and technology fields, women are pursuing such careers in greater numbers, but they are doing so amid a persistently challenging and unwelcoming culture.

“Now people are bringing it out into the light,” said Gina Ashe, CEO and founder of ThirdChannel, a retail analytics company. “It’s ugly but people are talking about it.”

Ashe was part of a panel that included leading women in the technology, life sciences and venture capital sector gathered for the latest Goodwin Download Speaker Series event for an audience of nearly 100 entrepreneurs and others on May 8 at Goodwin’s Boston office.

Speakers shared personal stories of gender discrimination in the workplace, obstacles they have had to overcome and their outlook for the future.

Numbers Don’t Tell Whole Story

“I find it laughable when people tell me 10 percent of venture investors are women. Like, that’s just a lie. That includes the admins, the CFOs, the heads of marketing and the doorwoman,” said Katie Rae, president and CEO of The Engine.

Rae said women have more recently improved their chances at securing seed funding, “but the follow-on is abysmal. We have a lot of hope there will be more female entrepreneurs, and there are. There are incredible women starting companies. But the follow-ons are hard.”

Some venture capital firms have made female-run businesses a focus of their funding efforts, a practice lauded by some as progress and derided by others as favoritism.

“I don’t want to be invested in just because I am female,” Ashe said. “I want them to invest in me because I am going to make them a ton of money.”

Payal Agrawal Divakaran, Principal at .406 Ventures, said it’s hard for founders – both male and female – to secure investors. But she said she recognizes the extra challenge there is for female  entrepreneurs. “What I am really focused on are the small, substantive actions that I can take to fix the issue,” she said.

Study Shows Effect of Unconscious Bias

Iris Bohnet, professor of Public Policy and Director of the Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard Kennedy School, said she was moved to study gender issues in the workplace in part because of a popular case study involving Heidi and Howard. In an experiment designed to uncover unconscious bias, students were asked to review two people’s  work history and qualifications – identical in every respect other than their names: one is Heidi; the other Howard.

“Sadly, what we find time and again, is that we agree we – men and women – that Heidi and Howard do a great job, but we don’t like Heidi,” Bohnet said. “Including women. We don’t like Heidi.”

Bohnet said she’s more encouraged lately as she is seeing more companies de-biasing their organizational practices, how they hire, how they promote and how they run their companies. Now, she said, about 50 large companies have introduced blind evaluation procedures to address gender and other biases in the hiring process.

Hopes and Challenges for the Future

As daunting as the technology, life sciences and venture capital sector can be for women today, panelists expressed optimism for the future.

At ThirdChannel,  Ashe said her executive team includes a number of women. “When people come in and see that, they say, ‘Something good is happening here.’ It sort of spirals everyone up and generates positive energy in the company.”

Rae sees a profound shift among today’s 15- to 20-year-olds. “I think it will change with this generation. They look at each other like they are equals. In school they are equals. I don’t think we all felt like that at their age.”

Joan Parsons, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank, agreed. “I have so much confidence in this next generation,” she said. “I believe that generation has had a very different experience in how they grew up.”

Ashe said it will be incumbent on companies to become more diverse and equitable if they hope to hire those young people as they age into the workforce.

“To grow a company that people of the next generation are going to want to come to work for, we have to reflect the world that they’re growing up in,” Ashe said. “Their world is so different from what our world was. And if they go to a company that has a bunch of wacky stuff that’s out of line for them, they’re not going to want to work there.”

(Note: For more news on this and other Goodwin Download Speaker Series events, join the conversation at #GoodwinDownload.)