Not so subtle discrimination in the startup community

This article first appeared on Feministing on June 4.

On June 3, a new startup accelerator, FounderFuel launched. The group, located in Montreal, Canada, but funding startups internationally launched with 85 members, but not one woman.

“At FounderFuel we believe startup success is more about the people than the idea. We take a lot of care in choosing the smartest and most resourceful, dedicated and passionate people we can find.”

It seems that those are men.

Even men involved in the startup scene noticed. David Crow, cofounder of Influitive Corporation, posted on Startup North that he was disappointed that so few women were participating at FounderFuel and and GrowLab, a Vancouver startup accelerator with a single female team member.

“These programs need to do better on encouraging diversity and actively seeking out different viewpoints.”

Crow even listed specific Canadian women who he felt should have been invited. His suggestions included Leila Boujnane of Idee Inc.Suzie Dingwall Williams of Venture Law Associates, Maggie Fox of Social Media GroupTara Hunt and Cassandra Girard of Buyosphere, Kristine Matulis of Firstround Marketing, April Dunford of RocketWatcherAmber MacArthur of MGImedia, and Gosia Green of LearnHub.

When challenged on the issue, FounderFuel admitted that they made a mistake.

“It wasn’t malicious, it wasn’t intentional – sometimes we are just oblivious to our ignorance …”

They apologized for not including any women on the invitation-only roster. They promised to follow up on the only two invitations that had been sent to women, and invite another 9. Then they quickly added April Dunford, Head of Global Enterprise Market Strategy at Huawei to the front page of their mentor list. They also opened the mentorship program to applicants.

These are great first steps. Assuming that all the women accept, and that no men are added to the list, women would then still make up about 11 per cent of the team. But the fact that public pressure was required for FounderFuel to admit their “Blissful ignorance” is telling.

Women are sadly underrepresented in the field of technology. During a town Hall meeting this April attended by President Obama, it was announced that women make up only 25% of the technology workforce, and only 18% of  those taking computer science courses.

The numbers are even smaller when it comes to startups. Women head up only 10 per cent of startups in the US, despite the fact that 40 per cent of all businesses are 50 percent or more owned by women.

It’s not just about the numbers. Subtle discrimination is also at play. Jessica Livingston, a founding partner at Y Combinator the seed-stage venture firm, backs this up.

“It’s been true in the past and probably is still true to some extent that investors discriminate against women. Not necessarily consciously, but their models of the ideal founder are current successful founders, who are mostly men.”

And sometimes it is conscious. Even Livingston’s Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham has stated the following on his own blog (as reported by  Zuhairah Scott Washington of Forbes).

“One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon…Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.”

And subtle discrimination isn’t limited to startup accelerators. On the same day that FounderFuel launched, the Montreal Gazette posted a story on the International Startup Festival’s plan to recruit grandmothers to judge startup pitches at their July event, also in Montreal.

“We always say that your grandmother should understand what your business is about,” organizer Philippe Telio told the paper. “So we thought it would be fun to have actual grandmothers judging.”

Telio didn’t ask for grandfathers. He singled out older women as the least likely to be tech-savy, (even while asking for those grandmothers to be tech-savy). Of course, that’s if you believe the stereotype. In fact, according to Inside Facebook, the fastest growing demographic on Facebook as of 2009  is women over 55. Had Telio inserted any other marginalized group into that sentence, he might have received an even stronger public response.

“We always say that your grandmother should understand what your business is about” Then. Just. Stop. Saying. That.” Montreal-based marketing consultant and digital legacy expert Adele McAlear argued in a twitter post.

Why grandmothers? Is there something special about older women that makes them less able to be tech savy? Does Telio think it’s ok to insult the intelligence of grandmothers? Or is it just one more way that subtle sexism in the startup community operates to discourage women from participating.

Just ask Tara Hunt, whose recent blog post on subtle discrimination in tech industry was featured in the Wall Street Journal, also on June 3.

I’ve had the same conversation with every kickass woman CEO, founder, executive and entrepreneur I know. It goes like, “They don’t say it, but I *know* they treat me differently. They aren’t taking me seriously because I don’t act like a man and when I act like a man, they call me difficult.”

Hunt is a Montreal-based startup entrepreneur and author, and one of the most influential women in technology, according to Fast Company Magazine.  She’s so active in the startup community that she’s actually mentored some of the 85 men at FounderFuel. Hunt is also the CEO & Co-Founder of a startup, Buyosphere. But she wasn’t initially invited to the FounderFuel club.

“Looking at the list makes me giggle. Many of those listed came to me for mentorship at one time,” she posted on twitter.

The startup community in Montreal is a diverse, vibrant bunch of interesting people doing exciting things. But stories like the ones on Startup Festival and FounderFuel have become increasingly frustrating.

Maybe the startup community isn’t really a boys club. I certainly hope it isn’t. But the attitude of Philippe Telio, and the organizers of FounderFuel tell me there is something that needs fixing.

Agree? Disagree? That’s what the comments are for. Contribute to the discussion.

Published by Shannon

I’m the founder of Café Noir Design Inc., a boutique Montreal web design company specializing in bilingual or multilingual web design. This is my blog where I talk about making the web a better place. I support things like making the web accessible for everyone, using open source software, helping organizations find greener more sustainable ways to operate through online technology and helping non-profits with online community organizing. I also talk about women and tech.