Look-ahead: a likely explanation for female disinterest in VC-funded startups.

There’s been quite a bit of cyber-ink flowing on the question of why so few women are in the software industry, especially at the top, and especially in VC-funded startups. Paul Graham’s comments on the matter, being taken out of context by The Information, made him a lightning rod. There’s a lot of anger and passion around this topic, and I’m not going to do all of that justice. Why are there almost no venture capitalists, few women being funded, and not many women rising in technology companies? It’s almost certainly not a lack of ability. Philip Greenspun argues that women avoid academia because it’s a crappy career. He makes a lot of strong points, and that essay is very much worth reading, even if I think a major factor (discussed here) is underexplored.

Why wouldn’t this fact (of academia being a crap career) also make men avoid it? If it’s shitty, isn’t it going to be avoided by everyone? Often cited is a gendered proclivity toward risk. People who take unhealthy and outlandish risks (such as by becoming drug dealers) tend to be men. So do overconfident people who assume they’ll end up on top of a vicious winner-take-all game. The outliers on both ends of society tend to be male. As a career with subjective upsides (prestige in addition to a middle-class salary) and severe, objective downsides it appeals to a certain type of quixotic, clueless male. Yet making bad decisions is hardly a trait of one gender. Also, we don’t see 1.5 or 2 times as many high-power (IQ 140+) men making bad career decisions. We probably see 10 times as many doing so; Silicon Valley is full of quixotic young men wasting their talents to make venture capitalists rich, and almost no women, and I don’t think that difference can be explained by biology alone.

I’m going to argue that a major component of this is not a biological trait of men or women, but an emergent property from the tendency, in heterosexual relationships, for the men to be older. I call this the “Look-Ahead Effect”. Heterosexual women, through the men they date, see doctors buying houses at 30 and software engineers living paycheck-to-paycheck at the same age. Women face a number of disadvantages in the career game, but they have access to a kind of high-quality information that prevents them from making bad career decisions. Men, on the other hand, tend to date younger women covering territory they’ve already seen.

When I was in a PhD program (for one year) I noticed that (a) women dropped out at higher rates than men, and (b) dropping out (for men and women) had no visible correlation with ability. One more interesting fact pertained to the women who stayed in graduate school: they tended either to date (and marry) younger men, or same-age men within the department. Academic graduate school is special in this analysis. When women don’t have as much access to later-in-age data (because they’re in college, and not meeting many men older than 22) a larger number of them choose the first career step: a PhD program. But the first year of graduate school opens their dating pool up again to include men 3-5 years older than them (through graduate school and increasing contact with “the real world”). Once women start seeing first-hand what the academic career does to the men they date– how it destroys the confidence even of the highly intelligent ones who are supposed to find a natural home there– most of them get the hell out.

Men figure this stuff out, but a lot later, and usually at a time when they’ve lost a lot of choices due to age. The most prestigious full-time graduate programs won’t accept someone near or past 30, and the rest don’t do enough for one’s career to offset the opportunity cost. Women, on the other hand, get to see (through the guys they date) a longitudinal survey of the career landscape when they can still make changes.

I think it’s obvious how this applies to all the goofy, VC-funded startups in the Valley. Having a 5-year look ahead, women tend to realize that it’s a losing game for most people who play, and avoid it like the plague. I can’t blame them in the least. If I’d had the benefit of 5-year look-ahead, I wouldn’t have spent the time I did in VC-istan startups either. I did most of that stuff because I had no foresight, no ability to look into the future and see that the promise was false and the road led nowhere. If I had retained any interest in VC-istan at that age (and, really, I don’t at this point) I would have become a VC while I was young enough that I still could. That’s the only job in VC-istan that makes sense.

12 thoughts on “Look-ahead: a likely explanation for female disinterest in VC-funded startups.

  1. I wish that was true, but it is not. If women were that strategic, how could small-time drug dealers or a guy playing in some local band pull way more (and hotter) women than programmers, engineers or doctors?

    The simple fact is that women do not feel attracted to comp sci geeks, engineering nerds or insecure doctors. Sure, they might marry them- but only after losing their youthful looks for some stability, money and perhaps taking them to the cleaners after a divorce. It also helps that we live in an era where an educated white woman can make decent money at some job that is not terribly demanding.

    So, no.. women do not avoid careers in VC-funded startups because they can see 5 years into the future, I believe the real reason is something far more simple, yet less obvious.

    Women are far better than men at identifying standard fakery, bullshit and lies. The ability to detect common forms of deceptive behavior is a function of your social exposure- something the median women has far more of than her male counterpart. They can therefore read the intentions of your normal sociopath (MBA-type guy) far better than the average STEM-er.

    Women are just not into being fooled day-in and day-out by someone who cannot provide her any real excitement. It takes a special kind of people-blindness to be a STEMer or licensed professional.

    • It could be that women tend to become marks for budding sociopaths much earlier in life, such as in high school or early college. When they date or become close friends with a person who treats them poorly, they learn what to watch out for. When they see similar behavior in startups or academia, they look for less abusive environments. Male nerds coming out of college with CS degrees are suddenly desired by society for the first time in life, and the MBA types that hire them take the place of the bad boy first boyfriend.

      • I think this is very insightful.

        I wasn’t pretending that the Look-Ahead theory is the full explanation. What you and AD are describing is also a big part of it.

        The CEO of my first startup had many similarities to an abusive partner (from what I’ve read). I had a lot of health problems (which he knew about, because startups can be intense, 70+ hour-per-week things) and he’d subtly imply that, with my illness, I wouldn’t be able to survive in a more typical corporate environment (wrong). That startup fucked up my confidence (and career, and finances) for quite some time.

        VC-funded startups tend to be good at infantilizing people. They’re halfway houses for college kids, they underpay while overloading them on meaningless feel-good perks and, over the years, try to convince people that they couldn’t live in a more typical adult environment.

        • First time posting on this blog. Michael, you have a lot of interesting things to say — I’ve been reading through many of your essays in the archives. From reading your blog, I see that VC-istan’s “marketing experiments using technology” are filled with problems, Academia lacks promising job prospects, being a cog in a “Java shop” corporate machine is awful…

          All this makes me ask, what do you think actually *is* the blue-chip move, the most effective thing with the highest probability of a good return, for a person interested in math/computers to do? (I’m also a person with idealism about functional programming—it’s beauty, power, and potential benefits). Even looking at other fields, I read about too many people having law degrees and the legal market being bloated. I read about doctors upset that they wasted the best years of their lives intensely studying in medical school and then going through residency.

          So it seems like everything comes with sacrifices. Do you see it as just a pick-your-poison scenario, or what—with your life experiences—do you see as some objectively and genuinely good choices (other than just being rich and having excellent connections)?

          • Blue-chip move? No idea. Just keep looking, I guess. The past 30 years may have generated a large number of low-quality institutions– and VC-istan is much at fault for that, but more at fault is the general right-wing lurch of the country– but you can still find high-quality people. Add to that: keep getting better at what you do, and never lose focus on your career goals. Don’t let a company tell you that its goals are better than your career; it wouldn’t sacrifice for you, so don’t eat losses for it. I won’t lie and say that it’s easy. It’s really hard.

            Much of what motivates me to get out there and write this stuff up is that, if the truth gets out there, at least the rising generation won’t lose confidence when the world abuses them. Can I stop the malice and abuse? No. Can I possibly deliver enough information to them that they can keep their confidence intact, even after losing much else? Maybe.

  2. My inclination has been that the lack of women in VC-funded tech startups was a function of the lack of women in software in general. Or is the effect even more pronounced?

  3. Educated women in their 20s do stupid things en masse like go to third tier law schools and buy over priced condos they can’t afford. I see zero evidence of more informed planning.

    • Actually, all law schools provide equivalent educations. If first-tier law schools turn out better lawyers (and they do so only on average), it’s because they only accept better pre-lawyers.

      This can be seen because prestige among law professors does not depend on where you teach.

      • I think the point that Sam was making is that the law market is saturated with degrees and unless you are in the top 5-10% of your class at a sub-Tier 1 (really more like sub-T14) you will have a hard time finding a job that justifies the 6-figure student loans.

        The law schools may cover the same material, but like you just said, what makes T1 different is the caliber of students on the average (hence why it takes being top 5-10% of your class is non-elite schools to really get the job you need to justify the expense). Employers know this and so they can cut out a lot of the crap by just going directly to the best (T14) because they know the caliber is a higher standard.

  4. I am probably 20 years older than you and literally lived through the 30 years you often refer to. I have seen firsthand the suicides and life devastation in search of winning the big corporate lottery. And yes, I also bought a very expensive ticket to the enter the contest. I like to suggest a few things:
    1- What you have witnessed is not limited to “VC-istan”. The “30 years war” was pretty much an all out war and deteriorated everything.
    2- The right and left pretty much stopped having any real meaning when it came to income gap and STEM policy. With the exception of “personal is political” where differences were huge, and minor economic policy differences both sides agreed on and abdicated to forces of automation and globalization.
    3- Automation and globalization have been the forces behind under-employment, unemployment and the increased income gap. In exchange the two forces reduce costs of consumer goods. The reduced cost that are “passed to the consumer” are either marginal(a cheaper shirt at Walmart) or just empty calories( cheaper smart phone). No such savings at say energy or housing and no longer even food. The bulk of saving is converted to executive bonuses. Globalization is a temporary strategy and eventually runs out of steam due to rising wages. Automation on the other hand is not temporary and is actually exponential.
    4- VC-istan’s focus on reality TV like activities, as you mentioned in another post, is also due to the fact that we don’t build nuclear reactors anymore! Manufacturing was one of the early sacrifices to the gods of automation & globalization.
    5- Further automation will actually end the need for globalization but will continue to create structural unemployment-everywhere.

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