Why Are There So Few Women Tech Entrepreneurs?

Women launch more than half of new startups but less than five percent of new IT companies.

In a March 26 report, BusinessWeek showcased the best young entrepreneurs in tech, all aged 30 and under and considered the "most likely to shape the world's digital future." Of the 45 entrepreneurs, only three were women.

Yet according to the Center for Women's Business Research, women are strongly represented among entrepreneurs, launching 55 percent of new startups. It is only in technology that they are under represented. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women represent less than 26 percent of the IT work force, and start fewer than five percent of new IT companies.

A NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology) literature review on entrepreneurs and gender found no conclusive evidence that gender was a factor in the success of entrepreneurs.

However, when it did influence success, it was more likely to be due to gender differences in education, experience, ability to build effective business networks and access to financing.

Just how significantly can networks, mentors and a seat at the venture capital table affect women's chances of launching successful technology endeavors? Those in the field feel that is it quite a bit.

One theory that attempts to account for the small number of women in tech entrepreneurship suggests that it is a reflection of the low participation of women in IT in general.

Women hold 51 percent of professional jobs in the United States, yet they comprise only 26 percent of the IT work force. Furthermore, far fewer women worked in IT in 2008 than did in 2000, down 76,000 according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Though only 13 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies have women corporate officers, according to NCWIT, their under-representation begins long before the boardroom. Girls accounted for just 15 percent of Advanced Placement computer-science exam takers in 2006-the lowest female representation of any AP exam.

While the number of men studying computers began to edge back up after taking a hit in the years following the dot-com bust, the numbers suggest that most women never returned. They earned only 19 percent of all computer science degrees in 2007, down from a peak of 37 percent in 1984.

Rebecca Mercuri, president and chief technology officer of Notable Software, a consulting firm that specializes in computer forensics, points to the especially low number of women at the Ph.D level of computer science, arguing that this number is connected to women's entrepreneurship because more often than not, it is Ph.D-level individuals who are launching new companies.

"The diminished pipeline affects entrepreneurship. These Ph.Ds are often the idea people, the people writing grants, holding the kinds of jobs needed to get a company kick off. In certain aspects of the field, it does help to land certain types of contracts," Mercuri told eWEEK.

Many women turn to business creation out of a need to shape their own career paths because a traditional corporate environment may not allow them to move at a pace that feels right for them.