I am not a token, I just happen to be female


In my role as a venture capital investor at Innovacorp over the last year and a half, I have attended a fair number of conferences and events. From the start, I noticed many gratuitous mentions of “we need to get more women in tech,” “we need more representation of women in VC,” blah, blah, blah. Honestly, it made me sick. All talk, no action. The stage was still covered by “the experts” – men. The established men still hung out in their cliques/bro circles. It would take one fearless, confident woman to even think about approaching them. (I will point out one exception – corporate venture capital, which profiles a lot of amazing, smart women as experts.)

Recently I moderated a panel at a conference, and from the outside, having a woman moderate a panel would appear to be progress. However, given my background, I should have been on the panel, invited to share my expertise and opinions and not simply facilitate a discussion by the “real experts.” But what really blew my mind was the response afterwards from women and men who’d been in the audience. I was commended by how well I “handled the men.” Wait, let that sink in. Yes, you heard me right. Other less offensive comments included how it was great to see a female on the stage (a harmless comment, in isolation) and how the organizers should be commended for including a female (not so harmless). Another shocker, these comments were all from females. To avoid a Michael Moore documentation of the event, I’ll add that there were some more appropriate comments like “great talk” and “amazing panel.”

Another gem. Not so long ago, I was asked to be part of a judging panel for a pitch competition, which is something I often do and do well. The event organizer followed up the invitation by stating that he wanted a woman on the panel. Not “I’ve seen you do these before, I hear great feedback and you kick ass.” My response was, “So you want me to be your token?” I think he was a bit taken aback by this. Good, intention landed. Further sub-par optics? The invitation was made after the programs were printed. It was an afterthought, and would have been construed as such from the outside. To be fair, I know the organizer was well-intended and is lovely; it just didn’t come out that way.

In contrast, at another all-day event there was one female speaker surrounded by men. She was fantastic. The best talk of the day, in my opinion. And what I thought and heard after she presented was how useful her content was, how funny she was, so smart. Yes, there was an element of noticing she was the only female, but it wasn’t the conversation. Of note – this was also a different type of conference, one where most of the speakers and attendees were entrepreneurs or employees in a tech company. My previous examples were events where the speakers were mainly investors with a mishmash of attendee types.

Out of all this, I have two main observations and a question.

1. There are signs the gender divide is changing, for some

There are different levels of progress when you compare the tech startup, VC and finance worlds. It seems females can be involved in startups, but can’t quite be investors just yet or have an opinion alongside the big boys when they talk about big boy stuff.

2. Watch your language and commend the right thing

I believe it’s important to think about the language we use and what we commend. Don’t tell a female you are looking to fill your quota. (Heck, don’t even think that way, but at the very least, start your mind shift by being conscious of your word choice.) It’s great to strive for diversity, imperative even. Just go find some kick-ass females. We’re around.

Q – To advance the cause, should women be ok with being the token?

I don’t think so. I think we are beyond that. We have value to give. We know shit. Valuable shit. We have opinions and it does matter, and we should be thought about in that manner. I am not a token, I just happen to be female.

  • Steve Duff
    October 1, 2014

    Thanks for putting your voice (and keyboard) to this topic, Dawn. Thoughtful, experiential and well written.

    • Dawn
      October 1, 2014

      Thanks Steve!

  • Emily Richardson
    October 1, 2014

    Fantastic article, Dawn. I’ve also noticed the typical gender roles on panels, which I find myself hoping is an honest oversight, but I worry sometimes exemplifies the subconscious conviction that men’s advice carries more weight.

    That quotas are even notionally considered suggests that at least there is an awareness of an issue. They aren’t necessarily a bad thing as a means of intentional diversification if they arise from a sincere belief that diversity by every definition makes for better panels and more profitable businesses (which it does). That said, we have a ways to go before that’s a belief that’s both widely held and acted upon.

    Thanks for refreshingly candid post.

    • Dawn
      October 1, 2014

      Thank you for your comments and observations Emily! It’s funny you bring up whose advice carries more weight. I have a draft blog post in the wings on this topic and not necessarily only from a gender perspective. Lots of great discussions to be had!

  • graham coade
    October 1, 2014

    Thanks Dawn.
    I have 2 young daughters that hopefully will be able to do whatever they want – including tech – without stereotypical comments and exclusions. On their behalf, thanks for saying (forcefully and eloquently) what needs to be said. And please keep saying it loud and clear.
    You did a great job moderating btw.

    • Dawn
      October 2, 2014

      My pleasure and thank you for your comments! Still lots to come from me 🙂

  • Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia
    October 1, 2014

    Refreshingly candid & very thought-provoking post indeed, Dawn! I enjoyed every syllable & letter of it! On the one hand, this is such an important conversation to be had, while one the other hand, it’s sad that it is still such an important conversation to be had @ this day & age. We’re so innovative & creative when it comes to technology, new products, services, etc. We move fast, there are constantly new tech-trends & “cool gadgets” we’re getting excited about, we know how to change quickly, we’re adaptable, flexible…like to make a lot of noise…but…in the end… unfortunately, all this “innovative & progressive thinking & doing” does not always translate into other areas of life, though it definitely should!

    Unfortunately, the conversation goes well beyond panels: Corporate Boards, or Boards, in general, are another very important topic! I personally — Emily alluded in her reply to “action” which should definitely follow all the talking — tried to make a change @ DNS by having 46 % female representation on the DNS Board as of the last AGM. Diversity of perspectives in any situation is so very important. If 50% of the world’s population are females, how can they not be part of a discussion, development & important decision making? DNS is as well working on a variety WIT-initiatives to implement change in various shapes and forms. It’s a complex topic. We recognize that. So be it. Let’s deal with it.

    Like you said, Dawn. Lots of great discussions to be had. But then again, quite disturbing that we still need to have these discussions @ this day & age. I know: such is life! So, let’s do something about it! I am in!

    • Dawn
      October 2, 2014

      So glad you enjoyed it and it sparked conversation. Thank you for sharing.

  • Deb Merry
    October 2, 2014

    Whether it is women (or men) calling it out, its needs to be done. Awareness is key. The fact we are talking about it – success! And…He for She, United Nations Campaign – we must enlist (not alienate) men in the fight for the equality. Equality is an ‘everyone’ issue, we all need to fight for it together.

    • Dawn
      October 2, 2014

      Def need to keep talking (and doing). Thanks for commenting.

  • Barbara Campbell
    October 2, 2014

    Absolutely agree. When it is pointed out to me (frequently) that I am a rare C level female in my sector (medical technologies) I like to respond that I am a rare combination of skills and expertise. My gender should not be the element people note.

    • Dawn
      October 2, 2014

      haha, great response and thank you for sharing!

  • Jen Liu
    October 2, 2014

    There’s a small number of ladies in certain industries for a reason, same things happen with guys (e.g. how many male nurses in a hospital). People have different interests, hobbies and career goals. You are right Dawn, some smart VCs like yourself just happen to be female. If we want to see more women in tech/biz world, men and women need to have better communications and be interested in each other. In my mind, action 1 – a conversation of “what is the ice breaker between guys in tech and ladies who are not in tech”, attract these girl’s attentions to the tech world; action 2 – ignore general public’s comments, they are not subject-matter experts. This topic is probably a gossip for them.

    • Dawn
      October 2, 2014

      Absolutely, Jen and great point – just because people are the same gender, doesn’t mean they like the same things. I know I bore a lot of people talking about the stuff I love and vice versa!

  • Ozge
    October 5, 2014

    Dawn, great post.

    You and I have had these conversations so many times and I’m still somewhere stuck in between. I do agree with you that we should not be fine with being tokens but at the same time, if none of us is willing to be a token, how are we going to show a female presence on these conference, panels and other public appearances?

    I don’t know the answer yet but my way of approaching this: Who is inviting me there with what purpose and can I bring another female on stage next year with me (or will have the power to put an expert female on that stage, not a token) next time the same or similar events are happening?

    Sadly, I already admitted that this issue won’t be solved till the next generation takes our places. So, anything I do now will be for our future daughters….

    I would love to hear more optimistic approaches though, if there are any 🙂

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