Times have changed quite a bit from the days when Radia Perlman enrolled in MIT as one of the small handful of women in a cohort of more than a thousand fellow students. Perlman, despite her own apprehension towards the nickname, has been called the “Mother of the Internet”, yet chances are you’ve never heard of her. Regardless of where in the hierarchy of invention you decide to place Pearlman’s contributions to the world wide web, her indisputable opus magnum, the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP), is part of the core architecture of network node connectivity which made the internet what it is today.
However, Pearlman hardly fits the conventional template of iconic tech-entrepreneurs and innovators. That job tends to be ascribed to the geeky, socially awkward genius-college-dropouts like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos – that is, young guys.
This arguably skewed image of the tech-startup world being an oyster conquerable only by the male-brain has played its role in shaping the makeup of entrepreneurial demographics as they are seen today – the silent implication being that men are better equipped to deal with the logical thinking necessary for programming. For instance,Venture Capital Kleiner Perkins amusingly (but seriously) identified nerdy, horny dudes as a major indicator of entrepreneurial success, and a key decisive factor for subsequent investment (Shevinksy, 2015).
But things have changed. For instance, from the idiosyncratic presence of a female tech student during Perlman’s college years, today’s MIT student population is 46% female – and the school remains top of the charts of nearly every metric imaginable. Yet is this change reflected in disruptive businesses?
The below infographic by Mitchell (2011) provides the quantitative landscape of female entrepreneurs in the US. While the numbers contained could shock some, it is worth noting that the data is somewhat dated by now (being from nearly eight years ago) and that these have likely improved since. Still, it’s a sobering reminder that there is much room for improvement.
If you’re still asking yourself what the fuss is about, a quick look at the academic findings will resoundingly emphasize the need to increase female participation in entrepreneurship: Women apply novel creative ideas and solutions to generate, process and bridge communication and know-how in innovative companies (Demartini & Marchegiani, 2018); women engage in radical, growth-oriented angel-investing through equity-shares, mentoring, and networking (Coleman & Robb, 2018); financial analysis of size, profitability, efficiency, financial structure and management of female-led startup companies revealed no differences to male ones on any of these metrics, despite a consistently reduced access to financial resources (Demartini, 2018); and lastly, in the broader picture, progressive economic development as a whole is putatively reliant on the active entrepreneurial participation of women across industries (Sarfaraz, Faghih & Majd, 2014). The list of studies could go on many times over, but the overall case in point is poignantly clear: women are not under-represented in the entrepreneurial landscape because of any lack in skills – rather it’s likely because not enough is being done to improve the cultural and practical opportunities for women to participate in and lead businesses.
In his tripartite model of equality, Noam Chomsky quotes Harvard economist Stephen Marglin who concludes “when workers are given control over decisions and goal setting, productivity rises dramatically.” Chomsky’s paper postulates equality in terms of equality of rights, conditions, and endowment; and while his intentions scope over humanity as a whole, his vein of propositions retain their pertinence when adjusted to the thesis of the present article: equality should be aspired for, and with half of the world’s population being women, gender-equality is an immensely significant domain in which to achieve those standards.
When asked about her role in the creation of the internet and the apparent lack of credit to her name, Perlman herself insinuated at the aggressive and jealous nature of how people feel about sharing acknowledgements, and how she herself found it easier to just “stay out of their way”. In a society of increasing equality, we are hopefully on our way towards a world ready for women who will butt in when credit is due.
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Coleman, S., & Robb, A. (2018). Executive forum: linking women’s growth-oriented entrepreneurship policy and practice: results from the Rising Tide Angel Training Program. Venture Capital, 20(2), 211-231.
Demartini, P. (2018). Innovative Female-Led Startups. Do Women in Business Underperform?. Administrative Sciences, 8(4), 70.
Demartini, P., & Marchegiani, L. (2018, March). Born to Be Alive? Female Entrepreneurship and Innovative Start-Ups. In IPAZIA Workshop on Gender Issues (pp. 219-235). Springer, Cham.
Sarfaraz, L., Faghih, N., & Majd, A. A. (2014). The relationship between women entrepreneurship and gender equality. Journal of Global Entrepreneurship Research, 4(1), 6.
Shevinksy, E. (Ed.). (2015). Lean out: the struggle for gender equality in tech and start-up culture. OR Books.