Gender equality lags in the male-dominated world of Silicon Beach, TechWeek panelists say
By Michael Aushenker
A dearth of women working in the booming Westside digital technology sector and in the nation as a whole was the focus of one of the larger panels during TechWeek Los Angeles, a two-day summit for industry professionals that took place Nov. 20 and 21 at the Santa Monica Pier.
Marina Lee, founder of the Santa Monica-based Women in Tech Network, headed a roster of speakers that included Women in Games International President Belinda Van Sickle; Karen Eng, CEO of the engineering consulting firm CSMI; Bret Lockett, a Mobli and M2 Jets partner and former NFL player; and angel investor Frank Grant. Fox LA Channel 11 reporter Susan Hirasuna moderated the 40-minute conversation.
According to Lee, only 4.2% of venture capital funding for tech startups goes to female entrepreneurs.
Lee also used Google’s employee makeup as a gauge for industrywide employment of women. The tech giant, which maintains a local headquarters in Venice, has self-reported that 30% of its employees are women. Breaking those numbers down further, women account for only 17% of Google’s tech workers but occupy 48% of its non-tech positions.
Rolling with those statistics, Hirasuna queried whether America’s female workforce has been supremely taken for granted: “If we have to go all the way to England to find talent, maybe we have to acknowledge there is a problem,” she said.
“We need to bring these women in and connect them with jobs right after college. We need a ton of VCs mentoring up with a ton of startups,” said Lee, whose networking organization’s One Million Movement campaign intends to help facilitate a million women joining the industry by 2020.
According to a recent column posted to techcrunch.com, industry experts have labeled the issue “a pipeline problem” of getting women to enter the industry, but research shows that many women who enter the field leave it. Harvard Business Review research concluded that women often left the field due to “the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments.”
Panelists agreed that women, if given the right opportunities, can excel in tech. But, as a whole, “I think the environment is not supportive,” Lee said.
“I was able to start my own company [only] because I had saved up money,” Van Sickle said.
From Lockett’s vantage point, the businessman has not been witness to many conversations among his peers about hiring women.
“There’s no real discussion at the top. They don’t see a problem. That’s a problem,” he said.
“They’re making a mistake,” said Grant of tech companies either passing over or failing to pursue talented women.
The panelists did acknowledge some strides forward—at least when it comes to identifying the problem. More than ever, media reports on the industry have been picking up on its gender imbalance.
“I used to go back years to search for articles. Now every medium is talking about women in tech,” Lee said.
Eng, who has a young daughter, said women are able to find a successful path in tech, but “it does start at first grade.” She insisted that traditional gender roles that remain especially prevalent in Asian cultures are falling by the wayside and becoming less of a barrier as more and more people work from home.
What about women helping others of their gender to get ahead? Sure, “junior-thinking women” indulging in backstabbing and boudoir-driven career advancement do still exist, Lee said, however “that’s why likeminded women have to band together.”
Among the panel’s attendees hungry for advice during the Q & A: Karen Lin, an engineer trying to launch a financial services company; and Sharon Herzog, a Santa Barbara resident working for her husband’s family business who wants to create her own start-up.
Lin deemed such panels helpful simply by raising awareness of the issue.
“It helps encourage people to create the type of environment we need to foster in order to help women in engineering,” she said.
“One of my missions is to drive more women into tech,” said Herzog, who actively supports Malibu-based Dreamfunder, a crowdfunding site raising seed money for women entrepreneurs.
Anecdotally, TechWeek’s crowd on Nov. 21 seemed predominantly male. However, to the organizers’ credit, the female presence was sizable and diverse—both ethnically and professionally —while several panels across the two days were female-themed or -driven.
“This event is better than most, for sure,” Lee said.