This is cross-posted at Restructure!
There is a common idea that women are underrepresented in tech startups because we are “nurturing and not risk-taking enough by nature”, an idea often proposed and upvoted in Hacker News discussions. Roy F. Baumeister, Professor of Psychology, also argues something similar in his defense of Lawrence Summers’ hypothesis that fewer women than men have high innate ability in science. Professor Baumeister argues that men evolved to take risks, and women evolved to play it safe, because we are allegedly descendants of risk-taking men and risk-averse women.
However, there are a few problems with this explanation of why women are underrepresented among tech entrepreneurs. One problem is that top venture capitalist John Doerr consciously and deliberately invests in tech startups run by white men over women and racial minorities, and even encourages other VCs to follow his lead. Even more, it is understood that this is “the way the venture-capital industry operates”. While other industries call this “stereotyping” or “profiling”, VCs call it “pattern recognition”. In other words, there is systemic discrimination in the tech industry based on gender, as well as race and age.
Another problem with the hypothesis of female risk-aversion is that outside of the tech industry, women have been launching new businesses at twice the rate of men for three decades:
The phenomenal growth of women-owned businesses has made headlines for three decades—women consistently have been launching new enterprises at twice the rate of men, and their growth rates of employment and revenue have outpaced the economy.
Yet a third problem with this hypothesis is that a recent study suggests that women are not innately risk-adverse:
Many studies have indeed found that women tend to be more averse to risks and losses than men – they prefer options with higher certainty, and they prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains. But according to Priyanka Carr and Claude Steele, this apparent gender difference isn’t the basis for sexual stereotypes, it’s the result of them.
When the volunteers were just told about puzzle-solving exercises, both men and women rejected the same number of lotteries (around three on average). But when stereotypes were brought to mind, the women became more loss-averse – more than men who had the same experience, and more than the other women who weren’t thinking about stereotypes.
Carr and Steele write that “similar gender differences observed in previous studies may have arisen not from innate and stable factors, but from powerful but subtle cues of stereotypes embedded in the environment and task instructions.”
As a commenter pointed out, being reminded of your gender happens all the time in daily life, for women.
The more innocent, scientific motivation behind evolutionary psychology is to take known evolved structures and derive possible gender differences in behaviour, but neurosexists reason in the reverse: they see gender differences and derive that there must exist corresponding evolved structures.