Tech start-ups show little imagination on board gender diversity

Tech start-ups show little imagination on board gender diversity
Nokia's Chief Executive Stephen Elop (L), Chairman of the Board Jorma Ollila (C), and Vice Chairman Dame Marjorie Scardino (R) take part in the 2011 Nokia Annual General Meeting in Helsinki, in this May 3, 2011 file photo.

SAN FRANCISCO - At Pinterest, the four-year-old online bulletin board service that is valued near US$3.8 billion (S$4.7 billion), some 70 per cent of the users are female. But the company's board of directors is 100 per cent male.

Male-heavy boards dominate in the start-up mecca of Silicon Valley, which prides itself on progressive thinking and putting talent first. A Reuters survey of the 10 top venture-backed start-ups, as measured by venture funds raised, shows that six do not have any women on the board, including Pinterest. And none has more than one.

Reuters' research relied on publicly available data and discussions with start-up executives and board members.

The gender imbalance has been the norm for years despite some recent signs of change. Google, Facebook and Twitter all went public without a woman on the board. They are more diverse now.

Big, established companies, by contrast, frequently have two or more female directors, based on the 10 largest US tech companies by market value. All of the top 20 have at least one. (See Graphic)

The dismal record of start-ups when it comes to gender diversity was highlighted last month when Twitter came under fire for its all-male board on the eve of its public offering. On Thursday, the company announced that it had added former Pearson chief Marjorie Scardino to its board.

Entrepreneurs and executives contacted by Reuters did not question the conclusion that there are few women directors at start-ups, but they frequently described it as unintended, and some such as Pinterest say their executive ranks are more balanced.

Start-ups tend to blame the lack of women on their boards on factors such as their youth, their small boards, their single-minded focus on growth to the exclusion of other priorities, and a scarcity of women steeped in technology. They also blame venture capitalists, who are usually male, usually hold the bulk of board seats - and don't want to see their voting power diluted by adding noninvestor board members.

Critics counter that entrepreneurs who pride themselves on creativity and innovation simply aren't trying hard enough when it comes to gender diversity.

At Pinterest, the focus is on work, said Chief Executive Ben Silbermann, whose board consists of himself and two male venture capitalists. "It's pretty heads down," he said. If the company expands the board and a qualified woman emerges as a candidate,"we'd be open to it," he added.

"Diversity across all dimensions, including gender, is important to our success," a Pinterest spokesman said. The company's leadership is roughly 40 per cent female, including its heads of design, finance, sales and recruiting, he added.

Public companies think about board diversity all the time - whether it's because they are constantly being scrutinized, or because they face public investor pressure.

"The companies that want to do it will do it. Those who don't will not," said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, a computer scientist and a board member at software giant Microsoft and chipmaker Broadcom. "This stuff doesn't happen by chance."

The issue is not simply one of social equity. A study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, a bank-funded group, looked at 2,360 public companies and found that over six years, the share price of large-capitalisation companies with at least one woman on the board outperformed companies with no women on their board by 26 per cent.

For small and mid-capitalisation stocks, the outperformance totaled 17 per cent.

The study identified a handful of factors that could explain the better performance, including a healthier mix of leadership skills, better corporate governance, greater understanding of consumer decision-making, and access to a wider pool of talent.

Even though it's now conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley that a lack of women in leadership and technical roles is a big problem, progress has been very slow, especially at the top. "Meritocracy is the word you hear all the time here. Everyone can get ahead," said Heidi Roizen, a venture capitalist at Draper Fisher Jurvetson and a former software-company founder and Apple executive. "I don't think it's as clean and pure as people think."

Women board members set an important tone, said Roizen and others, signaling to employees that talented women can succeed in the organisation. Too often, the prevailing culture is one of the "brogrammer" - the partying male programmer. "The gatekeepers sit in different places than in other industries," said Sarah Milstein, the co-host of The Lean Startup Conference. "The brogrammer culture is itself a kind of gate."

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