Robert Scoble Discusses Women In Tech

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Following up from the joint blog post, “Why Tech Already Has Women…” co-authored with Danny Brown, noted tech blogger Robert Scoble felt the critical remarks in the post were unfair. After discussion and sharing our source material, he agreed to answer five questions and clarify his views. Thank you, Robert, for addressing this criticism directly, and for taking the time to answer these questions.

Q: Please state your opinion on these statistics: 40% of U.S. companies are started by women, but only 10% of VC backed companies are led by women. This is in spite of statistics that show: Women-run tech startups generate more revenue per invested capital and fail less then those led by men, according to New York Entrepreneur Week. “Companies, including information technology, with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 66%,” according to research by Catalyst. Making matters worse, Silicon Valley seems to be contracting on minority and women leadership. Why is this happening?

Scoble: I focus on fact #3 in Why Men Get VC Money and Women Don’t... and the thing that I’ve noticed is that people who are technical get ahead in Silicon Valley (and in China or India or Israel, for that matter). The problem is that we’re graduating fewer women in Computer Science than ever before and THAT is the #1 problem we need to take on. And let’s not even talk about other traditional minorities. There the story is even worse.

There are a number of reasons for that, but #1 is happening in our engineering schools. If women continue to choose non-tech careers this problem will continue no matter how much we yell and scream about it.

The other things are definitely influences we need to pay attention to.

But let’s go back to 2001. I held an open-to-the-public dinner for bloggers. Nearly everyone in the industry showed up, but only two women did. This was an open-to-the-public dinner, not some private boys club. In that small room at Dana Street Coffee were also Biz Stone and Ev Williams, but also Mena Trott, co-founder of SixApart. Also Dave Winer. Brad Fitzpatrick. And lots of others who went onto great careers. This was the event that if you were there, you got access to people who went onto change the world. But mostly men were there. Can we change that? I don’t know how, especially when the numbers of women coming out of college just aren’t high enough.

Q: From remarks you made in the Facebook Group Tech Leaders and Influencers (Nov. 20 and 21) it’s clear that opportunities like O’Reilly conferences and your interview series are not interested in highlighting women unless they are CEOs of hot startups, currently . Yet you admittedly say, “What I do is the feeding system for conferences like the O’Reilly one” and in your words exactly, ‘I am not willing to overrepresent one group just to fix this problem.” How can women succeed in tech if the conferences, media and bloggers don’t give potential CEOs an opportunity to shine?

Scoble: I didn’t realize that succeeding in tech required conferences, media, or bloggers? Instagr.am, done by two guys, has been very successful and would have been successful without any of that. They didn’t announce their product on stage. I never knew about them before they showed me their product (and I didn’t write much about it the first few days, yeah they got into Techcrunch but they would have been successful anyway — many apps get successful without being in the blogs. GroupOn’s CEO said he even avoided blogs and conferences and he built a company with a value of billions in 18 months.)

So, I challenge your assertion. Conferences usually REWARD success. Look at SXSW. Does anyone get on stage BEFORE they build a world-changing company? No way.

My show? It’s a bit different. I’m looking for new companies that no one has heard of before. But that means talking to the founder or the CEO. Why? Because they are the ones responsible for the vision of the company and that’s what I want to talk about. I’m not a show about the janitorial staff. Or the marketing department. Or the accountants. I want to understand how the company is going to change the world. Only one person should speak about that on behalf of a company: the CEO and founders. Now, sometimes they bring others along to help explain their vision. A high tech company might bring along an engineer, for instance, to further explain the technology in a chip, or something else.

Q: If a woman is employed in a tech company, but is not a CEO or not a programmer does that make her any less a member of the industry or qualified to talk about the business of technology?

Scoble: Yes. The CEO or founder is the keeper of the vision and has the best view of the business. No one else does. It’s why I don’t speak for Rackspace very often. That’s the CEO’s job.

Q: When suggestions in the aforementioned Facebook thread were made about how you can help women in tech, you said, “To be honest, though, I am not that interested about the topic… I’d rather interview the few women that are running companies.” Totally understand this. As a blogger and entrepreneur, it’s hard to get told what to write or do. Given the time that has lapsed since the thread, have you decided to do anything in the immediate future above your current content direction to help women in tech?

Scoble: Yeah, since that thread happened I started a party series to help networking happen (it’s private and small, but 70 people showed up to the second one) and I’m doing that with two women and we’re working to keep the gender mix as equal as possible. Also, there are other groups I’m involved with who are bringing women and men together for better networking.

I’m looking for what I can do in education, too. I have two young sons and our education system sucks, even for boys, so this will be something I’ll spend more time on.

Q: What are your suggestions to better the glass ceiling in the technology sector?

Scoble: Promote better role models for women (I’m always looking for great CEOs. Look at Victoria Ransom, for instance. She’s doing great). By the way, we’ve had women CEOs at HP, eBay, and Yahoo, so I don’t think the problem is a glass ceiling. It’s more nasty than that. Many of the men in this industry treat women with disdain. Just look at the comments on some of the YouTube videos with women in them. Solving that problem is something above my pay grade, although I try to fight those attitudes when I see them.

By the way, one way I am helping is being open to all. I’m sharing a car ride down to CES with an influential woman in Silicon Valley (she runs a fabulous networking event here) and that happened because I put my phone number on my blog (it’s +1-425-205-1921 ) and my email is scobleizer@gmail.com — I’m looking for companies who are building world-changing technology and hope more and more of those in the future will be done by women.

About Robert Scoble

Cited from Wikipedia: Robert Scoble (born January 18, 1965) is an American blogger, technical evangelist, and author. Scoble is best known for his blog, Scobleizer, which came to prominence during his tenure as a technology evangelist at Microsoft. He currently works for Rackspace and the Rackspace sponsored community site Building 43. He previously worked for Fast Company as a video blogger. He is also the co-author of Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers with Shel Israel.

23 Replies to “Robert Scoble Discusses Women In Tech”

  1. this is interesting and one of the things that robert mentions as a problem make me wonder if perhaps something else is going on. the 2001 story about an “open to the public” dinner and only two women turned up. i bet you if we looked at the discussions, marketing ,website leading up to that event it would not look like it was designed for an audience of females and perhaps therein lies the problem. many ppl still dont understand that to attract certain types of people you need to do different things (which robert now seems ot have worked out as he is hosting some special events for just that purpose).

  2. Hi Geoff, Danny & Robert-

    Having been called out for my tweet suggesting that these answers are both pro-inclusion and clueless, I thought I’d follow up my apologies to Robert with some explanation about what seems a little off in some of the replies to Geoff’s questions…

    I’m not going to take apart & analyse each answer; here are just a few points about highlighting women in tech as a strategy for publicising alternative role models and for changing assumptions about women and technology….. through speaking at Conferences.

    On the question of the value of speaking at conferences, and on what criteria people get chosen to speak, Robert suggests that people only are asked to speak once they have succeeded…. not when they are on their way somewhere, or when they have something valuable to share.

    “Scoble: I didn’t realize that succeeding in tech required conferences, media, or bloggers? … So, I challenge your assertion. Conferences usually REWARD success. Look at SXSW. Does anyone get on stage BEFORE they build a world-changing company? No way.”

    Succeeding in tech — hey, just getting finding for your next start-up — requires having a good reputation, either for ‘succeeding before’ or from learning well from mistakes.

    People develop reputations not only through their actions/experience, but also through their exposure. Those who have the opportunity to speak at conferences, about technology, about their start-up experience, about trends they see, etc. get to develop their reputations. Those who aren’t invited to speak don’t get this exposure.

    When women are systematically (however unconsciously) excluded from speaking gigs, women miss key chances to develop the public reputations they need to get bigger roles and bigger investments in the future.

    It’s not ‘success’ but having something (perceived as) valuable to share, that makes people _qualified_ to speak at conferences. Moreover, opportunities to speak aren’t given out for only for ‘success’, or only for those who’ve started companies that have succeeded in concrete, financial terms (e.g., with an IPO). To suggest this is to seem unaware of how conferences work, how reputations are developed, and how ideas are shared.

    On a very different note, the question of ‘who’ to promote/ get into the public eye:

    Robert states that only CEOs are qualified to speak. Thus, he limits the pool to only those at the tippy-top, the tiny output of the pipeline. He says:
    “I want to understand how the company is going to change the world. Only one person should speak about that on behalf of a company: the CEO and founders.”

    CEOs are not the only people who can and should evangelize, promote or speak for a company, whether start-up or already up.

    In any organization where the members are engaged and ‘get it’, many– even any– of the members should be able to explain its unique value proposition, sources of sustainable competitive advantage, or core idea. When more than a few people at a start up *can’t* do this, it’s a sign of deeper problems.

    This ceo-centric view is parochial. It may be that to a technologist (vs. a manager, or organization leader) it makes sense limit the focus on the person at the top/helm … but this perspective excludes from consideration many of the other elements of what it takes for a company to succeeed. No matter how good the technical idea, if most members of the start up can’t explain it, can’t evangelize it, and can’t share it with others, that start-up is not as healthy as it needs to be to really ‘succeed’.

    To get good speakers, we don’t need to confine ourselves to CEOs. Nor do we need to confine ourselves to people who have “succeeded” on (only) a limited set of criteria. To do either or both is to construct conferences that have fewer ideas and insights to share than they could.

    WIth regard to women in tech per se– sure conferences should feature women who are CEOs and women who have ‘succeeded’. Conferences should also feature people who have great ideas and insights to share– and these can be women as well as men.

    If you’d like to read more about what I’ve written re: women in tech, gender parity in conference lineups, and diversity in organizations, come visit http://AuthenticOrganizations.com .

    Answers to the question of “How to get more women in Tech” are many, complex, and interrelated. It takes a systems-view to see all the places in the pipeline that we can and should address.

    No part of the pipeline is too small to warrant attention and change efforts. Conference gigs are one small part– and they are a critical part — of encouraging women to get into and continue in tech careers, of discouraging sexism, and of creating more and better businesses.

    cv harquail

    1. “CEOs are not the only people who can and should evangelize, promote or speak for a company, whether start-up or already up.”

      I agree. I can explain Rackspace’s business (and that of our competitors, too) very well. Does that mean I get invited onto CNBC to discuss that? No. Why not? Because my view of the business isn’t as good as the CEOs. Plus, it’s the CEO’s job to explain that to the world. It’s not mine. The media will always prefer to speak with the CEO about where a company is headed, even though, as you correctly point out, other people might have a good deal to say too. I love speaking with the engineers because they actually are building the technology, but they rarely understand the company as well as the CEO.

  3. First of all, it’s stupid to say that the problem is ‘worse’ with ‘other’ minorities, because women exist in those subsets as well. This isn’t a ‘white women’ problem, it’s a women problem; as such, you cannot segregate other minorities from that.
    Second of all, the views from a white man are going to be skewed; even the anecdotal ‘but I know women!’ stories really come from a distorted lens. I guarantee I know more women who can articulate the issues they’ve had in the tech field, why they’ve dropped out of tech (either in school or once in the workplace), issues they’ve had starting up businesses, etc.
    Some products/services/companies have different requirements than others. Conferences, blogs, and PR may mean more to some than to others. I don’t understand the dismissiveness there.
    But the treating women with disdain thing-that’s spot on. Not only from men, but from other women as well. Think of all of the negative words people constantly use that are ‘female’ – our culture is growing more and more accepting of treating women poorer and assuming that they have to ‘act like men’ to lead. All of the unique value that they have from acting like themselves–a combination of female AND male traits/strengths/weaknesses that every human being has–gets stifled by this.

    1. Hmm, there are a smaller percentage of African Americans in tech engineering ranks than there are women, so how it it “stupid” to say the problem is worse for them?

  4. While I jump with joy at the chance to joust with Robert anytime, he is, in my humble opinion VERY much on the mark and totally honest about this. He’s right – whether he says it or not, it’s up to EVERYONE, women included, to make their own way. I think he’s right. Men treat other men with disdain! They’re all into a zipper and ruler mindset – has nothing to do with being female. It’s truth – hard truth, but I’m going to back Robert on this one. Some people are over-analyzing it. The playing field is what it is, you’re not being kept off of it, but you do have to play by the rules already in play. You can’t change it BEFORE you play, you change it by playing. Well answered Robert. Bravo.

  5. Mike, CV, Barbs and Becky: Thanks for coming by and
    discussing this issue with Robert. It’s an important one, and we
    need to keep the discourse going. Robert: Thank you again for
    providing your views, and most importantly, demonstrating your
    willingness to work towards positive answers in this
    matter.

    1. Geoff, thank you for the opportunity. I am 55 and was an early “feminist” and to this day am sensitive to what I see as discrimination against gender/race etc. The great thing about the internet is that it IS a truly open game. Rather than women sitting back and waiting to be invited to play like we were in the 70s, or demanding to play in the 80’s and 90’s, the reality is women can now seek out and find opportunity and they’re not. We haven’t been in the game long enough to be good at it. Anytime ANYONE falls back on the race/gender/age card they’re throwing away opportunity. Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve seen too many people give up and blame discrimination.

      It’s really more about learning the game, showing up, and hammering away at what you’re passionate about. Robert isn’t the smooth polished inclusive hand-holder type and I like that about him. He just does it. It pisses me off sometimes, and comes off as arrogant and insensitive, but then so do I. It’s not about being invited and courted anymore -it’s the wild west still, for a few more years anyway, and those who seek out opportunity WILL find it!

      1. LOL, thanks Becky. We must push forward and look for answers. I was raised by a strong woman who was raised by another strong woman. They never accepted defeat. I’d rather not talk about other people’s personality foibles and characteristics. Find me a perfect person and I’ll find you a liar. I appreciate your conversation!

        1. I admire Robert! Don’t get me wrong. I think he’s got a lot on the ball. I do too. Strong personalities make for fascinating conversation. I can understand why people may have been offended, but as a woman who rowed on the men’s crew team in college and who was the first female ROTC Ranger and a whole lot of other firsts – I tell any woman that if they want it bad enough to go after it. People are always going to have preferences for one person over another for a variety of reasons. Look for opportunities – not walls. You find what you look for. Kudos to Robert for making this happen!

  6. Thanks for this Geoff & Robert. It made my week.
    I don’t have anything else that would add to the conversation – but I did want to thank you both for taking the time to write it.

  7. I wanted to address this comment by CV from an event organizer perspective.

    “When women are systematically (however unconsciously) excluded from speaking gigs, women miss key chances to develop the public reputations they need to get bigger roles and bigger investments in the future.”

    For us the opposite is true. 90% of our speaker submissions are from men. this year 50% of our speakers and 41% of our attendees were women, but that is only because we have actively reached out them from day 1.
    http://bit.ly/heqsxp It was really only due to a casual comment Dave Taylor made to me one day that just resonated.

    I don’t think most people consciously or unconsciously exclude women as speakers at events. Women simply don’t put their name in the hat for consideration as often as men do. Even when we ask women we respect for referrals to other speakers, most of the people they name initially are men.

    We have posted about this frequently and even held a webinar a couple of months ago specifically encouraging women to submit speaking proposals and coaching them on how to create winning proposals.

    I would love to hear if other organizers have had a similar experience with the ratio of speaker submissions.

    1. Rick: It’s my theory and experience as a conference organizer that women tend not to respond to calls for speaking opps, but do respond when asked. So I would encourage organizers to change their speaker processes if they want to be more inclusive. That being said, i understand the tech industry has its own difficulties, and my events were communications specific. Ironically, despite the incredible amount of women in communications, speaking line-ups tend to be dominated by men. I wrote about this in a separate blog post unrelated to Robert’s views on women in tech.

    2. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for raising the issue of women responding to calls for submissions. There’s a bit of a chicken & egg problem (i.e., why submit if the lineups are always mostly guys), but I agree with you that more women need to submit proposals to speak, and to chair panels, and even to keynote conferences.

      I’d love to read more about what you did to encourage women to nominate themselves and to be prepared to deliver terrific talks at BlogWorld. (I’ll email Deb Ng for more info.)

      I’m involved with a group working to get gender parity on TED conference lineups, and we would love to build on what you’ve done. (On Facebook, the group is “SHE Should Talk at TED”.)

      Your tactic of encouraging and coaching more women to submit has an added benefit, of opening up the submission & selection process so that it is/is seen as less about ‘who you know’ than what you know. And that’s good for everybody.

      cvh

  8. Women require different approach to leadership than their counterparts and it takes a different education that traditional. We are not oriented to leadership as it exists. That doesnt mean that we are not innate leaders with something to contribute. I always appreciate Scoble’s honesty and lack of opinion. He does think for himself. The issue is real and I dont know – even for myself – how to breakthrough
    Judy

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