When I was 16, I took a Computer Science summer course at Columbia University. I was the only girl in the class, and the instructor was a male graduate student. My recollection of the class was trying to keep up with the geeks, but always feeling slightly behind as not "leet" enough. I was the odd one out.
I went on to pursue technology, but not in the Computer Science sense of the word. There was a point at which I was deciding whether to study CS as an undergrad, and yet again, there I was. Paired with an old male CS professor as an advisor, and the only woman in a sea of geeky males. I chose to study social science instead.
In retrospect, I wish that I had chosen differently, or at least given it more of a chance. But back then, in light of my serious interest in technology, I had decided that I would rather pursue the impact of technology on society than pursue the building of it via Computer Science. Had I had a mentor that encouraged me to pursue Computer Science, I likely could have been convinced otherwise.
In light of the recent coverage in the New York Times on the low proportion of women in Silicon Valley, the sexism women face, and the potential for change, and this week's New York magazine cover story on the NYC startup scene, which features 6 females out of 53 entrepreneurs, it is clear that the overwhelming number of successful male role models and mentors drastically impacts the technology and entrepreneurship community.
Mentors matter for a variety of reasons. First, they provide crucial guidance and support for younger people in the field. Second, they serve as models of what a potential technologist or entrepreneur would strive to be in the future. Third, they provide essential connections, introductions, and relationships that a budding coder or founder could not muster up on her own.
I have been incredibly lucky to have had a variety of mentors in my career, almost exclusively male in the past. I respect and acknowledge all that they have done for me in their support. But research has shown that this is not always the case, and that male mentors are not always willing to take on women, if even for unintentional fear of social backlash.
Venture capitalists, most notably John Doerr, have a prototype of the person that makes for a successful entrepreneur: young white, male, geeky, and a Harvard or Stanford dropout. These have all proven successful in the past, so why not continue on with the same pattern? As I noted in this week's New York magazine piece, men are far more likely to refer other men, so there's a chicken-or-egg problem in the technology community. Further, men are both more likely to mentor and invest in other men. So what we get is a self-perpetuating prototype of a typical entrepreneur that is still highly accurate to this day, and despite a recent wave of outcries, does not show enough signs of changing.
To address this problem, we need far more female mentors and role models. I for one, in teaching about law and technology at Yale University, am able to mentor a diverse set of students -- both male and female. As such, they are able to see a female role model as a leader in technology. Mentors play a significant role in shaping the leaders of tomorrow, and the more female leaders that mentor up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs, the more likely that they'll enter the field with both genders in mind, and equalize the vast disparity that has emerged.