Women did not evolve against risk-taking and tech startups.

This is cross-posted at Geek Feminism.

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.

4 Responses to “Women did not evolve against risk-taking and tech startups.”

  1. Jayn Says:

    One thought that’s come to mind, which ties in with the last point, is that if women are more risk-adverse when launching start-ups, it may be more because of necessity due to them receiving less VC funding. There’s less room for them to screw up and still remain in business.

    IOW, VC firms may be causing the exact ‘patterns’ they’re reacting to.

  2. MikeeUSA Says:

    Political Suggestions about women’s Rights:

    * Females be married once they are able to have children (usually at ages: 12, 13, 14).
    * Men never persecuted for having relations with a young female of childbearing age.
    * The marital rape exception reinstated (So that a man is never persecuted for raping his wife).
    * If a man rapes a unmarried/betrothed++ virgin girl he marries her, pays her father some money, and doesn’t divorce her.
    ++Betrothal here meaning female living with husband for about one year before the marriage feast/ceremony.
    * Females barred from bringing claims against their husband (or similar) in court.
    * Females barred from divorcing their husbands.
    * Females barred from collecting monies from husband (child support etc).
    * Other similar things to remove all power from females and make them what men desire.
    (About Child Support: A saying from Bob is: child support is a seat at a Man’s table and a cot to sleep on in his house)

  3. Christopher Allen Says:

    I’ve actively tried to recruit for more women in my startups — as a social software developer I always felt that they, on average, might have an edge on male developers. Unfortunately, the best female talent I did encounter were “risk averse” and took what I considered as boring jobs with Wells Fargo or B of A. The change today is that even Wells Fargo, B of A, and other big firms have had huge layoffs, so the risk/reward ratio they sought failed. So I suspect many are more willing to do a startup after all.

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