‘Bro culture’ at start-ups keeps talented women out, says prominent academic
‘This stuff has been happening and everybody knew it was happening and everybody thought it was awful’
By Ari Levy
During Maria Klawe’s 11-year run as president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont California, she’s turned the school’s prestigious computer science programme into a hotbed for aspiring female developers.
Graduates from the small Southern California college are all over the industry, at places like Google, SpaceX, Yelp and Airbnb. Despite her role championing women in tech, Klawe has long been reluctant to recommend that her graduating students—particularly females—seek out emerging venture-backed companies.
The “bro culture” is bad enough, she said. On top of that, young founders typically avoid investing in human resources, making it even more difficult to address problems that arise.
Klawe is currently on summer vacation, but she took some time this week to talk to CNBC, in light of the multiple sexual harassment and sexism scandals that have hit the venture capital industry of late, and amid the ongoing crisis at Uber.
“For ages, we’ve been talking to students about whether they want to go to start-ups or not because they tend to have virtually no HR,” said Klawe, who previously held board seats at Microsoft and Broadcom. “If something goes wrong, it’s a matter of luck whether you have management that cares about these issues.”
In short, none of this is a surprise. Men behaving badly is a theme that permeated the tech industry long before venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck’s sexist behaviour was exposed by The Information last month. Just last week, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure abruptly resigned from his investing firm.
And it was happening long before ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post in February about her “very, very strange year” at the ride-hailing company, filled with sexism and harassment. That post sparked an investigation that ultimately led to the forced resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick last month.
“This stuff has been happening and everybody knew it was happening and everybody thought it was awful,” Klawe said. “Susan Fowler empowered people to say we can complain about this. It feels like somebody took the lid off.”
Klawe has made it a big part of her life’s work to help fix the problem of women in tech. Roughly half of Harvey Mudd’s 120 computer science and engineering graduates last year were women, about three times the national average. Five of the school’s seven department heads are female.
As a college president, Klawe can only control so much.
In 2015, women held just 25 per cent of computing jobs, according to the National Centre for Women & Technology. Start-ups are even less diverse. According to data from PitchBook, just 16.8 per cent of U.S. companies funded last year had at least one female founder.
Harvey Mudd is doing its part to improve the pipeline and get women excited about entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Yet Klawe recognises that it’s time for schools to do even more.
Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business just announced that it’s offering a class in the spring titled “Building Diverse and Inclusive Organisations,” specifically targeting start-ups, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Mudd has courses on social justice and equity issues and Klawe said she’ll be looking at other opportunities.
“I am excited about this whole idea of creating courses that look at this,” she said. “We need more than just exposing the fact that bad things are happening. We need to do a lot more constructive work and help create inclusive cultures.”