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.