My name is Spencer Lazar. I am a venture capitalist at General Catalyst. I grew up with the internet, spend my life thinking about how it can make our lives better, and work with world-class entrepreneurs to affect that chanage. NYC is my home. This is my blog.

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Women in Tech: The Real Problem & Possible Solutions

Over the course of the past few weeks, the long-standing hot button topic of the 'gender gap' in the technology sector has resurfaced as arena for deep social commentary - culminating in a full-page spread by Sharon G. Hadary in the Wall Street Journal entitled "What's Holding Back Women Entrepreneurs?"  The gender gap represents the discrepancy between the proportion of women to men within the field relative to that same ratio in the broader population (~1:1).  Leading entrepreneurial academic and weekly Techcrunch contributor, Vivek Wadhwa cites: "Women start only around 3% of the nation’s tech firms; they are almost absent in high-level technology positions; they contribute to fewer than 5% of all IT patents and 1.2% of open-source software; and the proportion of women-led companies receiving venture capital has dropped dramatically over the past few years. This is despite the fact that girls now match boys in mathematical achievement; 140 women enroll in higher education for every 100 men; and women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates."  The 'gap' is a problem, some would argue, because although women are as capable as men, the two genders do not sit in parity, reflecting not only a level of systemic discrimination that is unhealthy, but one in need of immediate intervention.

It is out of my absolute respect for women in business that that I wholeheartedly disagree.  I do not debate the demographic fact that technology has historically been an industry lopsided heavily towards the Y chromosome.  I am also no proponent of active discrimination or misogynism - as has been reported in the past.  Women, as well any any other relative minority in the tech world and beyond, should be judged by their qualifications and given an equal shot at opportunity.  

What I take issue with is the notion that just because discriminatory experiences have occurred against a minority group, that somehow society should expect and desire a world in which women and men are equally or even more proportionately represented in the tech arena.  Imposing some normative view on demographic equilibria is wrong.  Telling women that there should be more of them running their own companies, raising capital for their own businesses, and engineering interesting products is just as bad as telling them that they should be in the garden planting flowers or picking the kids up from school.  Women should be encouraged to do what they want to do.  Some women choose to start companies.  Some choose to treat patients.  Some choose to teach algebra.  Social structures are changing, and despite the snail-like pace, to the extent that they are underrepresented relative to their own volition, the numbers are sure to swing back toward female participation/leadership in technology in the coming years.  

The question then becomes how we enable those women who may someday want to play a role in the technology & business worlds to fulfill their dreams.  I believe that this question can even be expanded more broadly to apply to young aspiring mind of both genders.  So what are our options?

Polling a few prominent female technologists, Viviek Wadhwa argues that as a population, "parents need to teach their daughters that they can help change the world by becoming engineers and scientists, and successful women need to provide them with encouragement and coaching."  This is a respectable suggestion, but one that is very hard to actively implement formally as family values are often older and more impenetrable than the hills.  My friend Elizabeth Stark suggests that we (both men and women) should focus specifically on creating more of a culture of mentorship, such that feeble minds have the support infrastructure to make mistakes, take chances, and challenge societal norms.  I like this idea because I believe that it is relatively easier to implement.  For women in particular, I have been very pleased to see local events such as Girls in Tech in NYC & DLD Women in Germany bring together such prominent individuals who can serve as role models and coaches for the next generation of hungry minds.  Even Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology serves to direct talent toward individuals who might be able to help them get where they want to be.

In my mind, parenting and mentoring initiatives are not scalable enough.  There needs to be a more institutional way of getting people closer to "what they want to be when they grow-up."  I would target schools.  Middle schools and high schools are a possibility down the road, but I would focus today on those most capable of near term change: colleges & universities, who year after year shuttle our young directly into the working world.  Career counseling and on-campus recruiting efforts are abhorrent.  They feed students into white collar jobs through formal recruiting cycles that find a way to woo candidates into jobs that they do not even understand.  As a 20 or 21 year old, most jobs that pay $50K+ sound amazing and as friends throw frisbees and sip cold ones on the main green, it is easy to loose track of what you are even applying for.

Having been through the system a few years back, my experience was that if you are not going to med school or law school, 'campus recruiting' is essentially an on-ramp to consulting, trading, or investment banking.  While the dynamics may have changed as a result of the financial crisis, I always found it sad that many of the best and the brightness technical minds (both male and female) got siphoned off to architect trading systems for Goldman Sachs or sweat under heat lamps while building complex leveraged buyout models for JP Morgan.  Some population of graduating seniors with their heads on their shoulders actually knowing want to go into finance - and they should.  But before anyone is sentenced to a cubicle confined serfdom, they should know the options that they really have.  

Entrepreneurship - and the technology world more broadly - is a vast expanse of opportunity that continues to be under-encouraged by the pedagogical support community.  My recommendation would be to create an "Innovation Track" to supplement Finance, Consulting, Medicine, and Law.  Universities have the ability to leverage their deep networks of alumni that have done interesting things to help breed more success.  While it would certainly be hard work, my hypothesis is that it would pay off in the the long-run from an endowment perspective as happy people fulfilling their dreams are far more likely to support the infrastructure that allowed it to happen.  This is a gender agnostic proposition, but one that I think would very much work out for eager and qualified women everywhere. 

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