What Erica Swallow, the accidental poster child for tech’s gender gap, really wants


Erica Swallow wasn’t aiming to start a firestorm when she wrote about her summer spent at a well-known venture capital firm, General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge. But that’s what happened after the MIT Sloan MBA student recently chronicled her experience in a workplace where female decision-makers were nonexistent—and where there appeared to be little interest in changing that.

Swallow isn’t trying to be the hero who “solves” tech’s gender gap, but she does want to see more effort made in the tech industry to change the status quo.

I caught up with her via Skype in New York City yesterday where she had been meeting with Amy Vernon, Sara Holoubek, and Gesche Haas, trying to imagine a way forward as this gender gap issue gathers force.

Is she sorry she spoke up? No. Does she want to “out” the names of the partners who were unhappy with the story going public (some of whom she says yelled at her and brought her to tears)? No. She just wants to help people see that we’re at a tipping point on this issue and it’s not about her or General Catalyst—it’s so much bigger than that, and it begs to be solved. She’s trying to find the people who are working to fix this problem (and there are many), and help to be a part of coordinating those efforts.

In the venture capital world, there are men who get it, like Brad Feld (Foundry Group) and Jeff Bussgang (Flybridge Capital) who have been aware of the problem for years. Brad’s been working on initiatives with the NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology) since the 1990s, creating opportunities for women in technology.  Flybridge has been aggressively recruiting and training women for their firm, but many of the women have gone to tackle other opportunities, joining startups or business school faculties. It’s an ongoing experiment there and hard to say how to solve it.

Etsy recently completed a deep dive into diversity recruiting as they found their development team was not nearly diverse enough, and certainly not representative of their customers and creators who are 80 percent female. They stated the problem starkly in this slideshare:  “January 2011: 47 engineers, 43 male, three female”, then “December 2011  85 engineers, 81 male, four female” stating, “something wasn’t working — a 35 percent decline.” They “prototyped” the language they were using to recruit for these jobs, created a female hacker school program, and offered grants to women to attend the school. The result: While previously just seven women had applied to for the semester-long program (and one attended), the extra efforts led 661 women to apply for the following semester, with 23 attending it.

After this piece here in the Wall Street Journal, Erica became a big story. And with it, she was targeted for nasty criticism (along the lines of, “she’s a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t know about business and doesn’t appreciate the opportunity she was given.”)

First, she has entrepreneurial experience working at accelerator programs and in startups (TechStars, Contently, WeHostels) as well as larger businesses (New York Times, Saatchi & Saatchi). She’s also been a contributor to international publications (Forbes, Huffington Post, Mashable). And finally, for the record, she did not grow up in a wealthy family.

Even the use of the term “intern” she feels is inappropriate, since she wasn’t an intern by most standards, but a business student between her first and second years of MBA studies. The work she did this summer at the VC firm was more like that of an “associate,” which is closer to what you’d think of as “apprenticing.”

I’ll say it again: Erica is not looking to stir up more contentiousness, but is looking for solutions now. “I don’t want to be a leader of a movement,” she said. “I just want things to change and help other women find their voice, to speak the truth about what they have been through, and start finding ways to fix it.”

She’s someone who identified a problem, hit a nerve, and is trying to keep the momentum up. She has the background, the smarts, and the guts to talk about the issue and help encourage other women who’ve experienced the same thing. Some of them can—and some of them can’t— speak out about it, but for that reason, she wants to open a very inclusive dialogue.

She also wants to gather the facts. “We don’t have the data we need to understand this,” she said. “We don’t have the numbers. We haven’t put all the stories together, but it’s coming together on its own. It’s starting to look like a flood.”

We talked about the early research on women at work and some of the landmark books and research on the topic including The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild and Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Their research showed that many women don’t ask for a better salary, more responsibility, or more recognition at work for one good reason: The women who did ask were often penalized.

I asked her if there was something about the gender gap in the world of angel investment and venture capital that was particularly troubling to her. One thing sticks out: The much-revered rainmakers at venture firms are often typical alpha males. It’s nothing personal, she said, but she believes it’s time for change-makers to have a bigger role. “Venture capitalists fund the future, and this world’s beautifully diverse future isn’t currently being reflected in the people making investments, nor in the investments being made,” she said.

Halley Suitt Tucker is an author, entrepreneur, TechStars alum, and two-time successful Kickstarter campaigner. She lives in Arlington.
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