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Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the gender ratio at Startup School and tech in general

There's an "ask Hacker News" post from last night which basically asks why there were so few women at Startup School. I don't have a good answer to that, but there were other questions raised in the comments on that post which are worthy of analysis. In particular, I considered my own motivations in doing something like this (a startup), and what it would take to make me not care any more.

After thinking about this for a while, I came up with an answer: I had actually already answered this in a different context some years ago. It has to do with pragmatic thinking, and what you're really trying to accomplish.

I can think of multiple times in the past when someone has basically treated me as if I existed solely to run whatever project I had going at the time. They took it as something of a threat since I was "the boss" and they weren't. I had to explain why this was pointless because of where I was coming from.

They thought I was interested in running the show just to run the show. That's not it at all. I was running the show because it was the only way to make the project actually happen, and I wanted to use the program we would be creating! Time and observation had established that nobody else was going to handle it properly, so I sighed and stepped up to do it myself.

I've told these people something that always seems to shock them. It's simple enough, but they rarely seem to understand it. It went something like this:

I'm not here to be the leader of project X. I'm here to ensure that we create something which accomplishes X so that I can go and use it later. If you or anyone else can solve that problem, I'll just use that solution instead! At that point, why would I keep working on my own thing when the problem no longer exists?

I guess the people who get their hackles up at encountering me as the leader also don't understand the prospect of only taking the lead to actually accomplish something. For me, there's not much point to being there ... just to be there.

I'm just fine with having someone else running the show as long as it's being run the right way. When that fails, then I start looking for alternatives. It might mean forking things or just going out and starting my own thing from scratch. In theory it might include "take over and bump out the existing leader", but nobody with the power to do that has ever done that for me.

Put it this way: I tried the "bump out and take over" thing last year. It didn't work. The existing power structure was never going to allow me to have a piece. So, I left.

I can exist without being the boss. It's enough for me that things move in the right direction, and the things I do are meaningful, useful, and ultimately recognized and appreciated by the people who matter. This could be as simple as having an internal customer who's grateful to have me working on his behalf, or a boss who would take me seriously and not treat me like less of a person due to my communication style.

I wasn't getting any of that before, so I quit.

I'm not convinced it gets any better anywhere else in the industry, so instead of walking into another job, I started doing my own thing. At least that way, I'd have some say in the matter of who I work with.

If there was an obvious place to go with my own skill set which had nothing to do with this industry, I'd probably run there as quickly as possible, and leave this one behind. This remains true to this day. If I see that door open, I'm running for it lickety-split.

Now, I can only speak for myself, but think about the implications if this is true for other people in my situation. Assuming you accept me as a valued and capable individual, then it should pain you to see me wanting out of your industry. It should be a net loss for that industry, and that should be a problem to you. Now, multiply that by everyone else who feels the same way, and you have a big problem.

Of course, if you don't think I'm competent at this whole "compooter" thing, well, there's no helping you. If my accomplishments (documented in many other posts) don't convince you, nothing will.

But that's just me. I can't speak for other women. It's going to take many more introspective posts like this by other authors to start getting a handle on what's actually going on here.

Who's with me?