Monday, January 13, 2014

I Can't Find Women Because They Don't Exist, and Other Myths

"I don't have any women on my [team, industry, board, etc] because they don't exist."

This is the obliquitous response to the question "where are the women?".

"I looked, but qualified women just aren't out there."

Sure, in some cases, there are actually fewer women available to fill a particular role, but by allowing this as an excuse, we miss the bigger issue.  If you're having to specifically "seek out women" and "just can't find women who are qualified", perhaps you're not offering something that is appealing to women, or at the very least, you're not offering it in a way that's appealing to women.

I'm not saying you don't have something that women want.  Do women want jobs?  Of course.  To work in technology?  Sure.  Hold board seats?  Absolutely.  However, having something that people want isn't the same thing as having something that is appealing.

Let's frame this same conversation a little differently.  A new marketing manager at a company has their first meeting with their new boss.  "I can't find any customers because they aren't out there.  I looked everywhere, but it seems that there just aren't people qualified to buy our product."  So as not to be completely remiss, the marketing manager offers an explanation.  "It seems the problem starts in school.  People just aren't interested in getting the education required to qualify them to buy our product."

Sufficed to say, our marketing manager soon finds himself out of a job.

The problem with the "we looked but we couldn't find them" excuse is that, either figuratively or literally, you're leaving money on the table.  It's no secret that startups with a female executives are more successful, and that companies with women on their boards are more profitable, and yet so many people are still embracing the "it's been working well enough so far, so why think about or risk changing it?" mentality.  In the startup world in particular, we pride ourselves on innovation.  We are hackers.  We are all about disruption and changing the status quo.  But as we look for industries to disrupt, we don't always consider what it means to disrupt our own.

In many cases, women who have succeeded in male-dominiated areas (the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world), have done so by learning to play a man's game.  Much of the current status quo was created by men, and therefore, as makes sense, is reflective of what makes men comfortable.  Women who want to succeed in male-dominated areas have to learn not only whatever specific skills are required for their actual job, but also have develop the skills to cope with considerably more discomfort than their male counterparts. (I'm intentionally leaving the whole "are men and women fundamentally different and is it because of nature/nurture/society/teddy bears" conversation aside for the moment.  Let's just assume that, whatever the reason, men and women have their differences.)  As an example, there is no shortage of books, articles, etc, giving advice to women on how to negotiate raises, because, as a sweeping generalization, this is something that is more uncomfortable for women than it is for men.

If you really want to bridge the gender gap, you have to go back to basics.  Instead of trying to find women who are willing to play a man's game, think about how to change your game so that women actually want to play.  Disruption isn't just about about introducing innovative technical solutions, it's about fundamentally changing the status quo for everyone's benefit.  If you want to attract women, figure out what women are attracted to (hint: in this process, sometimes it helps to get an actual woman's perspective).  Maybe it's creating a company where raises aren't given through negotiation, maybe it's about innovating a new way for founders to pitch your venture capital firm, maybe it's about holding your board meetings in the office, rather than a golf course.

The impetus is not on women to get interested in your company, industry, board, etc, it's on you make your board, company, etc, interesting to women.  Unless you enjoy leaving money on the table, in which case, be my guest.
More for me.

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