Women entrepreneurs face more obstacles than men who raise money for high technology startups from venture capitalists. In a recent report by All Raise and Pitchbook, data revealed that split across 482 teams, female founders raised a total of $2.88 billion last year. That’s 2.2 percent of the $130 billion total in venture capital money invested over the year. Unfortunately, the percentage has not increased from the previous year. As a result, there are fewer female founders. And there are even fewer female technical founders.
Tracked over the past 28 years, the Digest of Education Statistics report on the percentage of women versus men in computer and information science degree enrollment, found that computer science majors have gone through boom and bust cycles among undergraduates. The report noted that the number of male and female students who were awarded degrees in the field went up and down at the same, and that general views of computer science are not gender-specific.
In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women, but by 2014 that number fell to 18 percent, according to the study. The researchers argued that one insight to gain from the data is that many women choose to not pursue computer science degrees because they believe stereotypes about the kinds of people who work in the field and don’t see themselves fitting in that framework.
The more those stereotypes continue to spread, the fewer women are likely to enroll in computer science degrees. This, in turn, leads to fewer female founders in the space. and the perpetuation of myths about gender differences in the tech sector. But there are some accomplished technical female founders whose work is debunking those misconceptions. Medha Parlikar, the co-founder and CEO of venture-backed blockchain technology company CasperLabs, is one of those leaders.
Parlikar began working in the tech industry in the early 1980s and has worked delivering production software at companies like Adobe, Omniture, Avalara, MP3.com and DivX. Her first formal involvement with Blockchain came in 2017 with the RChain project where she served as the tech manager, before co-founding CasperLabs in the fall of 2018. She has served as the CEO of CasperLabs since its inception.
Parlikar shared what she has learned over the course of her career and debunked three myths that she believes hold women back from pursuing jobs in computer science.
1. Women are too risk-averse to build large scalable businesses.
“This is definitely a myth,” said Parlikar. “Building a scalable business is a matter of acquiring and developing customers, finding a niche in the market, and failing and learning as a business. The qualities that a leader needs for this knows no gender.” Unfortunately, in the entrepreneurship space, one extremely powerful and pervasive stereotype is that women are too risk-averse.
This myth is predicated on the assumption that risk-taking is essential for a successful entrepreneur. The great business stories of our times are filled with examples of leadership risk-taking, yes. However, research across academia has coined the term “survivorship bias” to denote that too often in storytelling, we have a bias to tell the stories about gambles that paid off rather than tell the slow and steady story of the incremental approach to successful software products. Therefore, risk-taking may be considerably overvalued.
2. The work environment is hostile to women.
“There are startups that are tough on women, and this is unfortunate,” said Parlikar, who leads a tech team of over twenty developers and researchers. “Clearly, there is a level of professionalism and decency that is expected in a work environment. When you have to take a stand and vigorously debate technical details with a room full of men, you have to dig deep and follow your truth. I had to learn to do that — to follow my truth — and it has made all the difference in the world for me. It wasn’t something that I was taught. It was something that I learned. I had the answers all along, I just needed to trust in myself.”
3. Computer science isn’t feminine.
There’s a common misconception in tech that women are expected to act and dress like men do to get ahead. A typical engineer outfit can consist of a startup branded T-shirt they got as free swag, jeans, sandals and a hoodie. Then there are the “bro-grammers,” a subtype of male programmers who embrace the bro culture by hanging out and drinking a cold beer after a coding sprint.
And while representation of the women in science in the media still remains largely lacking, Parlikar cited computer science pioneer Margaret Hamilton, who coined the term software engineer and wrote code that was integral to NASA’s Apollo missions, as someone who greatly inspired her.
“It was the advent of the personal computer that tipped the scales away from young girls entering computer science. I was very fortunate, my father made sure I was exposed to personal computers at a young age,” she recalled. “Computer Science has given me a wonderful career, that has given me the flexibility to work from home and be present for my kids. It’s a great career for women.”
Personally, as a three-time venture-backed technical female founder of software companies with one exit under my belt, I’d like to add that, in my experience, being a woman can allow you to stand out from a group of men and help your voice to be heard when you speak up.
I embrace wearing dresses, heels, lipstick and perfumes, and like to have fun with my feminine side. I’m a girl’s girl and I always have been. But when I’m in the coding den, finishing out on developer sprint, I’m not focused on the differences between myself and the men I work with. I show up as I am. I get work done. And I occasionally will enjoy a beer with the team after work.
Computer science is a field that opens doors and provides great opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Don’t be afraid to take your seat at the table.
Entrepreneur and advisor to AI startups. Teaching Artificial Intelligence emotions. Johns Hopkins data scientist.