Are Women In Tech Really Held Back By Their Baby Craziness?


Recently, Penelope Trunk recently contributed to the debate about women in technology in an article at TechCrunch entitled “Women Don’t Want to Run Startups Because They’d Rather Have Children.” As a 19-year-old startup co-founder, I couldn’t just let this go.

Together with my mum and a male programmer, I co-founded CoRe398, and we’re developing an online data storing, sorting and organizing tool that is in alpha testing right now.

Reading Trunk’s piece, I was frustrated that I was being told that really, I didn’t have the time or energy to found and run a startup, because a few years hence I would be busy finding a husband and making babies.

Trunk’s post is a remarkably disappointing and unenlightened response from a woman who could be considered an inspiration to entrepreneurial women. She has started three start-ups as well as having two children. Despite priding herself in giving unconventional career advice on her blog, this most recent argument of hers about women and startups is decidedly conventional, like 1950’s conventional. Her thesis states that women don’t attempt VC-funded startups because at their prime startup time (which she pegs at 25) they are busy looking for potential husbands. They are doing this because their biological clock requires they have children before 35, so they must start trying to get pregnant around 30, thus logically be with their future husband around 27, and therefore don’t have time for things like a demanding career at age 25 (This is sounding remarkably like Rachel’s Plan).

It could almost be a farce, but Trunk seems to see this as the main reason for the gap in funding for male- and female-founded startups. The most disappointing thing is that Trunk doesn’t seem to want to fight this state of affairs. She goes on to say (with a resigned and hopeless air) that women find it impossible to combine young children with a demanding career. Men don’t have this problem, according to Trunk, because evolution has made it so that “Men have to trust that the kids will be okay so that they can leave and go get food or make more kids.” Charming.

It’s a pity Trunk would make such a disappointingly un-feminist argument about the role of women in startups, when she has spoken remarkably honestly about other issues important to feminists, such as her miscarriage and the difficulty of accessing an abortion in her home state of Wisconsin. But this particular argument about women and technology companies sadly has some flaws:

1. It paints a sadly conventional/inaccurate picture of women. According to Trunk, all women wish to have children. And they wish to do so by the time they’re 35. Therefore they don’t have time for startups.

This creates a dangerous characterization in which women have to be cautious in their career and life choices so they can have children, whereas men can take as many risks as they wish, since they know that their children will be taken care of. It ignores the possibility that some women (like some men) don’t wish to have children. It ignores the fact that some women are happy to prioritize a career over family life (as many men have been doing). It supports a conception of family life in which women carry a disproportionate burden of child-raising because “for men it’s different”.

2. It uses a very limited and stereotyped model of a startup. According to Trunk, all startups are started by 25-year-olds. Again, this is a sadly limited view for a woman who is in her 40s and started her most recent startup in 2008. Most importantly, it ignores the numbers. A post on TechCrunch the day after Trunk’s revealed that research indicates the average age of a successful tech-company founder is actually 39.

Trunk assumes that only a 25 year-old can have the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to build a technology company. This is a bit insulting to those entrepreneurs who are already fighting against the “two white guys in a garage” stereotype. It fails to acknowledge the diversity (and possibility for much greater diversity) in the leadership of startups.

3. It’s disappointingly resigned. Trunk appears to have just accepted the status quo as fact, and is now using it to explain the differences in VC funding between men and women. At times Trunk seems close to being dissatisfied with a world in which we accept that men “leave their kids in favor of 100-hour work weeks.” But she doesn’t rally against this model and try and make the world of startups more welcoming or accommodating to women, whether or not they want to have children. Trunk is making the foolish mistake of using the facts of the status quo (a world in which women have a disproportionate share of the domestic and child-rearing burden and therefore cannot take on the risk of a startup) to justify and perpetuate them.

In fact, her advice to women starting startups is to work with twenty-year-old guys: “My startup is me and a bunch of twenty-something guys. And if you’re a woman launching a startup, my advice is to stick with this crowd.” That’s right. Don’t hire other women and make it possible to combine the two. Don’t hire men who might have families, or, heaven forfend, wish to help out with the domestic workload. Just perpetuate the status quo, and accept it. After all, other women are too busy preparing to have children, right?

This post is adapted from Core398. Republished by permission.

Image Via Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock

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