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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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