Julie Sandler and Shauna Causey

The day that GeekWire reported that Seattle would host only the second-ever Startup Weekend event catering to women July 13-15, I was pulled in to a fascinating Facebook thread started by a friend in the space who had a question:

Is it discriminatory to host an event that limits the participation of one group in favor of another?

It’s a valid thought, and he isn’t the only one who’s had it. I’ve heard mutterings of this sort for years around women-centered tech events and so, I’ll bet, have many of you. Women are underrepresented in startups; the agreement stops there. We want to explain it, but can we grasp the reasons? We want to correct it, but can we say exactly what’s wrong? We want to solve it, but do we even have all the pieces? Some comments I’ve heard make me wonder: Are we even agreed that it’s a problem at all?

In a time of entrepreneurial frenzy, there are few more important and uncomfortable subjects in startups than this. It’s too big to tackle in full, but we’ve got an in, so let’s take it:

Is Startup Weekend Women’s Edition a healthy event for our startup climate, or a flawed one?

I spoke with two of the event organizers, Julie Sandler of Madrona Venture Group and Shauna Causey of Decide.com, about the topic this week. It wasn’t a fluid conversation. Though they half expected some gender based criticism after the event announcement, they heard mostly enthusiasm. Still, neither woman is new to the issue and both know it’s out there.

Causey, who co-founded the nonprofit TechMavens with Melody Biringer to highlight women making a mark in the space, heard her share of skepticism after the network’s 2010 launch. And Sandler said she sees more women founders fly under the radar here in Seattle than in the Valley.

All the more reason, they said, to host an event that spotlights Seattle women, so they can better spot each other.

Startup Weekend Women’s Edition will have as many 90 total participants, but will accept only up to 15 men, each of whom must be invited by a woman. Will that skew the group? Absolutely. At 630 Startup Weekend events around the world, an average of 82 percent of participants have been men. To Causey and Sandler, it’s about intention: The flipped proportions are not meant to combat some prejudice or oppression or to try to correct the gender gap in one impossible stroke, they said.

“That idea of, ‘hey, let’s finally give women support’ has not been the driving goal here,” Sandler said. “Rather, it’s ‘let’s create a really fun, meaningful experience that brings even more new faces to Startup Weekend and inspires them to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas’.  That applies to both the women and men we have participating.”

And yet, the flipped proportion shows up rarely, if ever, in startup nature. It’s a common sticking point of all-women tech events: If women show up in that artificial environment who wouldn’t have shown up otherwise, how does that help them navigate the real world once the event is over?

As another guy friend put it to me this week, “There’s a fine line between encouraging and protecting.”

Sandler and Causey objected to the idea that the proportions were artificial in one sense: Interested women are out there, they said, they’re just scattered, and don’t always see each other. Area meetups draw people with one interest or another pretty regularly. That doesn’t mean participants become dependent on those narrow networks. Also, back to intention, the mostly-women mix isn’t meant to reflect some belief that women need other women around them to succeed, only that their getting to know and see other women in the space can inspire them.

Notably, the event isn’t out to draw only women. “If it were all women, honestly, it’s not something I’d want to be involved with,” Causey said.

Sandler has been intrigued for years by studies that show that in large companies, at least, women advance more easily when they see other women already at the top. The same dynamic should work in the startup space: If you see someone like you succeed, you’re more likely to believe and act on the belief that you can succeed yourself.

It’s a thread that ran throughout our conversation, and it reminded me of a time I talked with Brady Forrest about the popular Ignite events he co-created in Seattle and has seen spread around the world. When the event launched in 2006, he worked to make sure every Ignite night featured an equal number of male and female speakers, even when fewer female speakers applied. That helped balance the crowd and the topics. Over time, putting women in the lineup got easier. “It’s important for people to see themselves reflected on stage,” he once told me. He’s right.

Guys who want to ask critical questions about women in technology are careful not to comment too loudly because, well, they’re guys, and with a topic this pervasive but also personal, they don’t know if there’s something they’re missing. Women react to the gender gap differently. Many adjust and thrive just fine. Some say they barely notice. Those that do notice don’t want to dwell on it or appear to victimize themselves to themselves or anyone else. What good would that do?

I can’t speak for all women, but while nothing beats getting to know great minds in the space, whatever their gender, seeing, meeting and getting the chance to work with other women pushes me in its own way.

Male or female, whatever your perspective, this is important to talk about. I hope we do.

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  • http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey Shauna Causey

    Thanks for covering this and opening up the conversation, Monica.

  • peignoir

    Having helped organized all the past startup weekend women we had, I’d like to add a couple of observations here to help the debate.

    1. We had already 4 events using this format in the past: 3 Startup Weekend in SF/The Bay with women2.0 (we have one each year since since 2009) and one in Spain (with Ellas2.0) .

    2. At the last event inSF we had 70% of women this was an amazing experience to be in this totally reversed world for me ( usually we have only 15-20% of women at SW) cf the pic -> http://women2.com/wp-content/uploads/w2sw_women2_startupweekend_2011.jpg

    The data shows that we’re getting more women involved after a women themed event. But we’re still far from our goal of 50%. In term of team dynamic it’s interesting to observe that mixed team (women + men) are the one who usually perform the best :) Hope that will help the debate..

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Hey there — curious to hear how the cafe philo discussion went. Did this come up? Did you hear some interesting insights? Sorry I couldn’t make it!

  • Anthony Mizoni

    Where are the minority women? Even Indian women are absent (not sure why with all the presence at Microsoft and Google).
    Monica – Can you open up that discussion?

  • http://twitter.com/digital_sweet CANDY

    Tough, but my instincts tell me it is good to promote women by all means, we want to not only encourage but cultivate a stronger female presence in the tech industry, but there are probably more supportive alternatives other than making it a single sex event. It is this strange Catch 22 where we want more women, so by focusing on only women, well, we get MORE females involved. However, it does seem we are dancing a fine line between encouraging women, while alienating men somehow in this way of thinking or developmental process. I wonder if we are on the road to a future where men complain they want equality back again?!

  • http://twitter.com/shaherose shaherose

    I’d like to make an important clarification about the comment from Franck below, one of the Startup Weekend Cofounders (Peignoir).
    For 3, maybe 4 years, Women 2.0, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of female founders, has co-produced, with Startup Weekend, an annual Women 2.0 Startup Weekend. This particular event I speak of is an even effort from both organizations and DOES NOT have a gender quota – not for attendees, nor for mentors. This is an open event.
    In the end, anecdotally I’ve been told by Startup Weekend themselves that this co-produced event is usually the largest, globally and in many cases draws the best talent. There are a large number of Women 2.0 Startup Weekend success stories – ideas that are now funded, growing startups – such as Foodspotting.com, Saygent.com and many others. Without a gender quota, these events are a hit, they produce results. In fact, all Women 2.0 events are OPEN to both genders, inclusive.
    Peignoir, one point you made is incorrect in your comment by comparing our co-produced events with this one mentioned in the article: Women 2.0 never excludes Men from their events. That is the difference and the debate, that Startup Weekend has launched a Women only Startup Weekend which, in our view, unfortunately separates, rather than integrates top talent. For us, this doesn’t contribute to creating a diverse, integrated startup community.
    While we respect the work of Startup Weekend greatly and have been great partners in the past, Women 2.0 is not associated with Startup Weekend Women’s edition, the comparison by Peignoir below is incorrect.

    • peignoir

      No worries, my point was about the events we organized together, this one is still mixed (there is just this invite someone strategy) SW + Women20 events have always been a success to me, that’s what I was pointing there.

  • carolsanford

    For me this is simple a question of a market Niche. Women needs something different and focusing on that is smart. Makes total sense to me as an educator of entrepreneurs for decades
    Carol Sanford, author The Responsible Business, winner of four awards as best business books (general) CNBC, 800CEOREAD, Int’l titles and Non-fiction cover.

  • Janis Machala

    I think this article has an interesting set of issues discussed around women and the balancing act that transcend tech….


    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Yes! Just linked to this in a comment above. Fascinating piece. I read it late last night and I’m still digesting it. One of the most thoughtful pieces of analysis I’ve read this year. I think it’s already made me think differently about a few things re: work/life balance for women.

  • http://profiles.google.com/clive.boulton clive boulton

    The controversy over Augusta National Golf Club’s discriminatory membership policy – no women allowed as members* – has come up again … at Startup Weekend – no men allowed. (“all Women 2.0 events are OPEN to both genders, inclusive”

  • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

    Healthy discussion, to be sure, although I have to admit I was taken by surprise when I saw this show up in GeekWire. A Startup Weekend focused on women participants makes perfect sense to me and I’m grateful to be one of the men that will be in the crowd for the event . What doesn’t make sense is that there would be such a dearth of women startup entrepreneurs even though there are so many super-talented women in and around the tech space.

    But I’m not worried… I’m pretty sure women are going to make up ground to men over the next decade. I see a much more balanced gender distribution among the youth entrepreneurs in the TiE Young Entrepreneurship program and every one of the five entrepreneurship interns I’ve met from the new UW Lavin Entrepreneurship Program have been young women.

    For the most part, the Internet was invented and built by men and for the first 30 years was used largely (although diminishingly) by men. But within the past 6 – 8 years women have come to exceed men in virtually every category of online engagement, including number online, time spent online, communication online and money spent online. Porn and first person shooters may be the last hold outs. If you’re building an Internet-based business and you’re not considering whether women are, or should be, your customer and trying hard to understand what they want, and hiring talented women to help you figure that out then you are quite possibly making a huge blunder.

    In my experience mentoring and advising a bunch of male entrepreneurs, I don’t get the sense that there is a bias among them against women… just a blind spot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dean-Collins/674616722 Dean Collins

    Feel free to check out http://www.Twitter.com/XXinTech/following for some local women in tech who should definitely know about your event.

  • Bill Schrier

    When the number of women in tech is roughly equal to the number in the general population, and when their pay is commensurate with others who work in technology, then perhaps we won’t need Startup Weekend – Womens’ Edition. Wonder if there would be support for a Startup Weekend for Latinos or African Americans, ethnic groups also quite under-represented in the tech field?

  • mj16

    Women and men are different so why not have events dedicated to addressing challenges common to both, but also with room to support women in uniquely female ways. Being pro-woman does not mean being anti-man. This is the difference between the “let’s support women” movement of today vs. the feminist movement of decades past. It is more positive, balanced and realistic. The world needs women and men engaged to help solve humanity’s most difficult problems in energy, agriculture, the environment, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rwoan Ronald S Woan

    I am going with fantastic experiment. This is following relatively shortly after a traditional Startup Weekend event in the area. If it ends up being successful in drawing women who wouldn’t have otherwise attended Startup Weekend or we end up with companies/projects that are different it will be a major success. If not, we will have learned something for trying. Hats off to the organizers and sponsors.

  • firewallender

    “Guys who want to ask critical questions about women in technology are careful not to comment too loudly…” I think there are also a lot of women in technology, myself included, who specifically opt out of gender-focused events but don’t speak up about it enough. So here’s me speaking up about it:

    I want to go to something that’s focused on technology and people. I want to see a persons character and competence in action over the course of a weekend. I don’t give a thought to their gender and would be put off by the idea of other people judging me by anything but my character and competence as well.

    Women are welcome at all Startup Weekends (I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences at them), and frankly, I’d rather meet the people at the weekend focused on technology and people, not technology and gender.

  • ChuksOnwuneme

    This actually was an awesome experience. Was totally stoked by the quality of ideas presented this past weekend. Maybe startup weekend, kids edition should be next?

  • http://www.facebook.com/peignoir Franck Nouyrigat

    it was fantastic :)

  • http://twitter.com/valeASeattle Valentina Ferrari

    Startup Weekend women’s edition was a great success. My team was composed of 2 men and 2 women and we worked really well together. I think it would be interesting to see how many of the women who came to Women’s startup weekend for the first time will also attend the general startup weekend in September.

  • H. Burns

    It’s great… if you’re a chick.

    There used to be a saying that the man wears the pants in the family. The saying comes from an era when underwear was reserved for men and women were expected to remain bare under their dresses. It was an expression of control of men over women. Could these types of conferences be a modern-day equivalent of underwear intended to demonstrate the control of women over men? Just a thought.

  • missdk

    Interesting that your male friend would say “There’s a fine line between encouraging and protecting” when he doesn’t have to step out of his comfort bubble and be a highly visible, tiny percentage of men in a field where his gender is seen as less competent. What risk has he taken? What toll does he endure as the 85% of representation?

    I’m a woman in tech. Everyone in my classes and in my job is male. I like them, we get along fine, and 90% of the time I feel I am just another human and not a woman. But part of the reason I feel confident and competent in my field is I spend a ton of time participating in women’s organizations such as Anita Borg and SWE. The women in these organizations directly combat the insidious stereotype threat that creeps on every woman in a male dominated field. I don’t need to pull from my own well of confidence when I hear sexist language like “women just aren’t good at tech,” but can directly look at the women I know and work with at these orgs to use as a shield.

    Women’s only events do not protect women or coddle them, it gives them a safe starting point, a foundation, a resource, and a well of confidence. I have no problem being the single, highly visible woman in most of my tech experiences because I know it is not the ONLY experience I have to have, and I don’t have to bear that toll alone.

  • Wes

    its all about promoting equality, I don’t think its possible to justify discriminating against men as promoting gender equality.

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