Nick Beim

Thoughts on the Economics of Innovation

Are Venture Capitalists Biased Against Female Entrepreneurs?

In her article Taking a Hammer to the Silicon Ceiling, Amanda Bennett hits on a real problem in the venture industry where spoken and unspoken biases have a significant impact: it is harder for women to raise money than it is for men. However hopeful one’s outlook, this is an uncomfortable and inescapable truth that the industry should acknowledge.

What’s the reason for it? I’ve been in the venture business for 14 years, and rarely, but sometimes, I’ve seen it come from unabashed bias about women’s ability to do as good a job as men. Generally this relates to the subject of women already having or potentially having children. I’ve heard people remark: “Wouldn’t that be a big distraction for the company, and how could they possibly be as productive as men in those circumstances?” This particular kind of bias is rarely expressed in a public manner but certainly affects the thinking of some. The good news is that as younger generations of investors assume more prominent roles in the industry, I think it will substantially diminish.

More often, I’ve seen the challenges female entrepreneurs face in raising money result from a bias that is rooted in the primary way venture capitalists make decisions, which is through pattern recognition. In a private conversation, a successful west coast venture capitalist expressed the issue to a friend of mine in a backward-looking empirical fashion that was an attempt to be unbiased: “look at the numbers – most successful startups are started by men in their 20’s and 30’s; the number of successful startups founded by women is much smaller.” Yes, but most startups in any historical timeframe were started by men in their 20’s and 30’s. This doesn’t speak to the likelihood of women succeeding, particularly since a significantly larger number of women are starting companies today than in the past.

Social scientists call this logical flaw selecting on your dependent variable: determining that A is a principal cause of B by looking only at cases of B. Used as the primary lens for evaluating new investment opportunities in venture capital, it creates all sorts of intellectual distortions and inertia and is the principal reason most venture capitalists are late to promising new trends and only jump on board when there is a significant pattern of success. I think this is the cause of the biggest challenge that female entrepreneurs face in raising money. Most venture capitalists have not internalized the success of female entrepreneurs to a sufficient degree to have it influence their intuitive pattern recognition, partly due to what they perceive as a lack of a large enough n and partly no doubt due to the fact that they have not worked with female entrepreneurs directly. It was also the cause of challenges that entrepreneurs faced in raising money in a variety of pioneering new fields, from personal computers to the internet to digital animation. Success by entrepreneurs in these fields was not yet a large enough historical pattern to influence investors’ thinking.

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