For Women in Tech, "Try Harder" Isn't an Answer.

It's no secret that the "tech" world suffers from a dearth of women; overall, women account for a scant 6 percent of the chief executives of the top 100 tech companies. Only 22 percent of software engineers at tech companies are women, and among the venture capitalists who fund tech start-ups, only 14 percent are women. Last week, Wall Street Journal reporter Shira Ovide found that "only 11 percent of U.S. firms with venture-capital backing in 2009 had current or former female CEOs or female founders." By any reasonable standard, the overwhelming maleness of the tech world is a problem.

Not so fast, says TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington. By his lights, critics are exaggerating the problems women have in the tech world:

...statistically speaking women have a huge advantage as entrepreneurs, because the press is dying to write about them, and venture capitalists are dying to fund them. Just so no one will point the accusing finger of discrimination at them.

Arrington continues, and explains the real problem with women and the tech world:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

This reads like it came straight from the handbook of "how to argue against the existence of systemic bias." First, harp on whatever advantages held by the underprivileged minority, "blacks can't talk about discrimination when they have affirmative action!" Then, shift the blame to the minority themselves, "blacks could do better if they just worked for a change." Finally, posit an innate reason for the disparity; Arrington doesn't go there -- though he nods in its direction -- but TechCrunch's commenters do, and in the ensuing shitshow of a comments thread, dozens commenters write off women as biologically incapable of succeeding in the tech world.

The truth is a little more complicated. For starters, it's silly to say that "not enough women want to become entrepreneurs"; as The New York Times found, 40 percent of private businesses in the United States are owned by women. It's less that there is a dearth of entrepreneurial talent among women, and more that women are socialized away from math and science at an early age; according to a report by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Computer Science Teachers Association, girls are less likely to receive parental encouragement for interest in math and science, and teachers are more likely to direct girls toward "traditional" interests in the humanities. To say nothing of the fact that women lack role models for success in tech and science. Beyond that, Arrington is wrong to dismiss sexism in the tech world, which is pervasive and well-documented.

Ultimately, these are systemic problems, and they require a response from every level of the system, from the men who fund tech start-ups, to the educational system that pushes girls away from math, science, and technology. Pace Arrington, it's simply not enough to glibly demand that women "try harder."

-- Jamelle Bouie

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