By Anna Khan
The writer works at a venture capital firm in New York. She is an honour’s graduate of Stanford University
Pakistan embodies a strange contradiction when it comes to women in positions of power and influence. On one hand, the country boasts a female ambassador to the US, speaker of the House, foreign minister and the first female prime minister of a Muslim state. On the other hand, we are plagued with dowry abuse, domestic violence and acid throwing incidents. How can these two parallels coexist within one nation? Personally, I can only speak of the imbalance in the business world, especially in the field of technology. The current state of women in technology can be framed around two key points: fundamentals of the business and the influence of socialisation.
In fundamentals of the business, unsurprisingly, there are certain gendered traits that help men succeed in this industry.
a) Gut response: The capitalist ’gut’, although overzealously hyped, often turns out to be true. There is a certain feeling you get the minute a team walks in, the way it introduces its first slide, and the way it answers tough questions that gives you a sense of its ability to execute plans. It is hard to trust that gut because so often it is saturated with bias; but that bias is also a proxy for experience. Women need to trust that experience as much as men do and then not look back and second-guess their actions.
b) Risk and reward: It is not a secret that engaging in venture capitalism is a risky business. You can be a safe investor and be very metrics driven (which helps), but at the core of it, you are investing money in a premature, greenfield market space — one that is ripe for reward but also very susceptible to failure. I do not necessarily believe women are inherently risk averse. I have met many who are not. However, the way women measure themselves often becomes more about them as individuals and less about them as investors. According to a recent study on the ways in which women measure themselves, researchers discovered that when women suffered poorly on tests, they blamed themselves.
‘We could have done better. We could have studied harder.’
The majority of men, however, blamed the test itself.
‘The test was too hard. The questions weren’t phrased well.’
Everyone makes poor investments; it is part and parcel of the job. Often, it is the market that did not play out well, a team that did not perform, or other external factors that have little to do with the investor who called the shots. Women need to internalise that reality.
c) Building networks: Women are good at building relationships — it is part of their innate ability to nurture that comes with giving birth and raising a family. Women have, for the most part, been able to connect with individuals with ease and warmth. But men are better at networking in a professional setting. A core aspect of building networks is asking for favours, and with favours comes indebtedness. Women fear indebtedness. Networks exist for the sole purpose of the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ mantra. If women do not ask for favours, they are bestowed with fewer. They need to ask for more help. It will make them stronger, not weaker.
The second key point mentioned earlier, was the influence of socialisation. Socialisation is a generational trend and when underestimated, is hard to work past. In the US, financial services (Wall Street) and advertising (Madison Avenue), were not only dominated by men, but were also infamously toxic places to work in. The trends that developed in both industries were extremely hard to overcome due to years of an embedded environment. The role of the secretary did as much good as it did harm. It let women into the proverbial ‘door’ but then locked them up in that specific role with little upward or lateral mobility.
Technology and venture investing (although an offshoot of financial services), can avoid this generational influence. This industry is relatively new but ‘women-ready’ roles have already started settling in: community managers, sales executives, marketing vice-presidents. I admire and respect the women in these roles and the influence they have in their respective companies — but I am afraid these roles are becoming gendered. Technology is a dynamic and fluid ecosystem and women’s roles should follow a similarly fluid trajectory.
Gendered roles are one part of the problem. The other is the label fallacy we are propagating in our schools and colleges. I know it is important to intentionally create pathways for young girls to succeed — but how many times do they have to hear that it is incredible that a girl is majoring in mechanical engineering or computer science? How many times do they have to hear from their friends that being the only female engineer on Company X’s product team is a feat worth being lauded for? These feats should be intrinsic and accepted widely.
Women in my generation (18 to 35 years) can make an effort to project positive experiences about the technology industry for younger women (still in middle or high school). College, although many would disagree, is not the problem. The real problem and space for improvement is in middle and high school. If we start early, we protect girls from the influence of socialisation and point instead to role models who have affected change in society.