(Disclosure: I am a young minority female hacker who's actively working towards running a startup as a future career. I'm trying very hard not to be biased as I write this, and am trying to exclude my personal experiences as much as possible, but ultimately that view's going to leak through in some way no matter how much I try.)

I don't usually go for the "rah rah rah gender" stuff, but this was interesting. I came across this snippet today while I was in the middle of researching for my DED paper (on technologies for distributed communication). Is the new era of collaborative technology on the internet repeating the same old cycle of empowerment based on some gender or cultural bias or difference?

It is no accident that the example innovators here [both old-school radio technology and the new web 2.0 startup rush] are all educated white boys (not girls) from middle-class or better backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about the possibilities of new technologies, but it is important to see that new media don’t allow “anyone” to make software and content.

It's interesting to note that this statement would appear to be backed up by, for instance, the population distribution of Y Combinator founders. Data's sketchy and anecdotal here with insanely small sample sizes, but still - in what is currently four rounds of funding for multiple companies, each with multiple founders, we still see lots of young... white... males. This isn't to say that I think the hackers there shouldn't have been; all the folks I know (8 Oliners and counting!) who have founded startups with these people are fantastic engineers, very, very good hackers, and great people. If I was the one betting on bright young startups, I wouldn't hesitate before giving these people lots and lots and lots of money.

However. Again, anecdotal evidence and n=1, but if Miks (a phenomenal engineer and roboticist - would that I had half her skill) gets this reception in a room full of startup geeks, what does it mean? (Statistically speaking, nothing.) When looking at hackstars, the question isn't "why these people?" They're at the top because they're good at what they do. The question is "why not these other ones?"

Is there something dissuading females and minorities from pursuing web startups (and in a broader picture, empowerment via the technology of the internet)? In this day and age, we'd like to think that it's not that we think these folks are less competent hackers, it's just that they don't... stand... out as much. (Why?) And the few of them who do are taken as relative rarities, exceptions who prove the rule. "Your position in the technical meritocracy is correlated with such an unusual identifier that I'm going to call attention to it in my identification of you."

I was going to write something here about my own experiences, but realized that was what I was trying to avoid. Instead, I'll list some possible boilerplate reasons for this phenomena.

  • Females and minorities just aren't good at "this kind of stuff." This is the horribly politically incorrect viewpoint, and not a whole lot of folks will have it (or at least admit to it).
  • They're not interested. Are they interested but can't find a way in? Are they disinterested because the world's set such high barriers and anti-expectations against them doing this that the activation energy becomes sufficiently high enough to dissuade folks that otherwise would have gone for it?
  • This is an extension of the current math/science/tech imbalance. Fewer females and minorities (for instance) learning to code as a kid means there's fewer ready in their late teens to take the "next step" towards hackstardom.
  • They tend not to pursue areas that they don't think they can change the world with. In a field dominated by people unlike you, making changes is tough. Also, how much good will web startup companies actually do? Maybe they're contributing in more productive areas than making shiny webpages. On the other hand, the internet is a tremendous tool with the potential to provide information access to lots of people who didn't have it before, and knowledge is power - couldn't this very easily be used to change the world, if you had the right goals at the outset?
  • We've got too small a sample size and it's too early to tell. The small sample size appears to be indicative of a potential imbalance, though.

Now, I don't think we should go out and riot "ZOMG discouraging underrepresented groups MUST COMPENSATE!" because that's an overcorrection that ultimately causes bitterness-causing oscillations in the system by setting up a double standard, even if it does some good. (See: affirmative action.) But what is the solution? Is there even a problem in the 'net startup domain? We're seeing the rise of so many female and minority owned startups in this day and age... or is this due again to disproportionate press coverage of such startups?

My thoughts have turned into incoherence and I should get back to that paper, so I'd like to throw this open for discussion. I'd especially like to hear the thoughts of those folks who have already gone the startup route on this. Do you think this is something we should be looking at, or is the playing field already as even as it gets and there's no need for worry?