by Sam Altman7/25/2014
Sexism in tech is real. One of the most insidious things happening in the debate is people claiming versions of “other industries may have problems with sexism, but our industry doesn’t.” Both men and women claim this, even though it keeps getting harder to do in the face of shocks like the Tinder texts. We know there is a problem, especially when it comes to starting companies, and we think YC can do something about it.
I’m willing to believe it’s worse in other industries1, but it’s still very bad in our own industry. Debating how to fix it is important, but debating whether or not sexism actually exists trivializes the problem in a toxic way. A lot of women may not experience sexism, a lot of women may experience it but not talk about it, and a lot of men aren’t sexist. Saying “There isn’t any sexism in tech” in the face of a mountain of data hurts things in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Although the current debate is mostly focused on gender, and I think women face some of the worst discrimination in tech, they are certainly not the only group that faces discrimination.
We—the tech industry as a whole—need to fix this. Most importantly, it’s an ethical issue. And speaking for YC, it’s also in our best interest. People who are not white males will start many of the best companies of the future, and we’d like to fund them. (White men will start many of the best companies, and we’d like to fund those too.)
We have continued to listen to the community and are trying to understand what we can do to help. Realizing that it’s hard to speak with much authority here as a white guy, I’d still like to share some current data about YC and also talk about what we’ve been doing and will do to improve the situation.
We think YC can help drive real change, and we hope lots of other organizations will join.
Some YC diversity data
It’s hard to put exact numbers on this because we don’t have a precise definition for “technical” and we don’t ask for gender on the application form, but it appears we fund technical women that apply to YC at a slightly higher rate than technical men that apply to YC for at least the last few years.2 However, a lower percentage of women than men that apply are technical.
We can get more precise number when we disregard background and just look at the gender of applicants (based on looking at the application videos)—19.5% of the startups we have funded this year have women on the founding team compared to approximately 24.3% of startups that applied, based on a random sample of a few hundred applications.
As a side note, even though it will break backwards compatibility, we are considering changing how we look at this to the percentage of all founders that are women instead of the percentage of companies with a female founder. Encouragingly, the percentage of women applying continues to trend up year after year.
10% of our companies currently worth more than $100 million are now run by women. These women aren’t just on the founding team—they’re the CEOs. While this number is still much smaller than we’d like, and I believe we can do more to make it higher, it’s a big improvement from 0% a few years ago and well above the industry average.
39.6% of the founders in our current batch were not born in the US, representing 27 different countries.
We have four female full-time partners (and in addition to advising startups, to a large extent they run YC).
What we’re doing
One of the most-repeated things we’ve heard from our founders and others is that in addition to holding focused events like the Female Founders Conference, it’s important to make sure we have women speaking at all of our conferences and during our batches, which we’ve been doing. We’re also showcasing more women and people of different ages and races on our website. Positive role models are wonderfully effective, and we have more and more successful women who can inspire the next generation of founders
We will continue to ask our successful female founders to spend some of their time telling their story and being role models. They, and others, can also talk about the challenges women face running startups far more authoritatively than I ever can.
One thing I’ve heard again and again is that the hardest challenges are not the obvious ones. Yes, it’s awful to hear the horror stories of wildly inappropriate behavior from investors to the entrepreneurs pitching them. (Unfortunately, stories like these are not super rare, but because there’s a big cost to going public with them, most never get told. My hope is that YC has enough leverage at this point to make it clear that this is unacceptable and we will not continue to work with investors who do it.) The thing I didn’t appreciate until I spent a lot of time talking to female founders is that unlike the occasional terrible incidents, there are frequent minor incidents—to stick with the fundraising example, many women told stories of investors only talking to their male founders in the room. And more generally, many just don’t feel like they belong in the startup culture.
We won’t be able to stop all bad behavior, of course, but I do think we’ll be able to help reduce it.
Nearly all of the women I’ve spoken to feel that Hacker News has improved a great deal—and even when jerks write nasty comments, they usually get a lot of responses of the type we like to see. But there is still more we can do, even though we’ll probably never be able to rid ourselves of Internet trolls completely. Specifically, we’d like the community to help by downvoting comments that make HN an unwelcoming place to anyone. We made a significant change to the downvoting algorithm a few months ago. When we see comments that are threatening or worse, we ban the accounts and say on the thread that we don’t tolerate the behavior. We are also working on new guidelines for HN comments.
We’re encouraging our startups to get HR infrastructure in place earlier. Many startups wait until they have 50 or so employees before thinking about this; our sense is that many will benefit by doing it earlier. Traditionally, startups have thought of HR as a drag on moving fast and openness, but a well-running team is one of the best assets a company can ever have. We’re working on some projects here but aren’t ready to share details yet.
Another thing that we’ve heard is a belief that YC prefers companies with technical talent on the founding team. This is true. Based on all the data we’ve seen, it seems like a smart thing to prefer. We’ll make exceptions—not every company needs complex technology to win, and not all leaders have to be expert coders. But this is part of our DNA, and what makes us work—it’s a challenge to have a software company without at least one cofounder who can write software and evaluate and attract other coders. This isn’t unique to tech; movie people should probably run movie companies.
Even if founders don’t code day-to-day—I didn’t after the first couple of years of my startup—a deep understanding of technology is still very valuable for leaders of technology companies.
So we’re especially excited by efforts to make learning to code more accessible. Teaching people to code is not the only thing we need to do. In addition to taking a long time to effect change, there are other problems in the industry like the attrition rate of women and minorities in tech that we need to fix. But anyone who wants to learn to code should be able, with lots of encouragement along the way (this goes for any sort of engineering, of course.) It’s an important long-term step to take.
Not everyone wants to learn to code—there are plenty of other interesting things to learn, and plenty of other ways to contribute value to a startup—but our sense is that a lot more people would be interested in it if they thought software development was a viable career path.
Google’s recent work here is great, as is the work of YC companies like Hacker School, Codecademy and MakeGamesWithUs. YC also funds companies that help people learn to code, and we are especially interested in funding non-profits trying to help make STEM education more available and the tech world more inclusive. We also try to host, judge, and help fundraise for hackathons and other tech events designed to broaden the community.
Teaching people who want to learn to code how to do so, ideally at a young age, is one of the most important things the world can do to increase the pool of potential startup founders, even though this will take a very long time to produce change. Teaching people about startups is probably less important than teaching people how to code, but still a valuable thing to do. We’re planning to put more resources online to help people learn how to start startups. More good startups will be good for everyone.
We—the industry as a whole—still have a huge amount of work to do, and we need a lot of organizations to be involved. We hope what we’re doing will help. This will be an ongoing process for YC, and as always please keep sharing your feedback.
1. My mom is a doctor. When I was maybe 12 years old, I went with her on a Saturday to the hospital and we went into the doctor’s lounge. My mom pointed out to me there was a men’s bathroom but no women’s bathroom. I thought (and still think) my mom was the best doctor ever. I remember being incensed by this in the weeks after and the image is still very clear in my mind.
This was the late 1990s in Missouri, which is certainly different than the 2010s in California but not wildly so.↩
2. My guess for the explanation here is that it’s easier to start a startup as a man than a woman, and so the talent pool is more concentrated on the side of women who start startups.↩
Sam Altman is the CEO of OpenAI. He was the president of YC from 2014-2019. He studied computer science at Stanford, and while there, worked in the AI lab.