Everything That's Wrong With Y Combinator's Sexism In Tech Post

Ever since Paul Graham stepped down from Y Combinator, the Stanford of startup accelerators has been trying to give off a more welcoming vibe. The attempts thus far have seemed awkward, half-hearted, and therefore insincere. As though Sam Altman got PR advice on crisis control from a YC bro-founder: Just tell 'em what they want to hear.

But I've been waiting to see how it plays out. Today Altman published a post on diversity numbers that focuses primarily on the gender gap at Y Combinator, skirting race and ethnicity. Altman's predecessor, Paul Graham, has made influential statements on both fronts. This follows the same trend as tech corporations who have begun pulling back the curtain, after hears of trying to obscure the numbers. There's an inherent good in increased transparency, but it's hard to muster the obligatory sense of gratefulness. Silicon Valley defines itself in opposition to the status quo, but these reports reek of it.

Last week, I emailed Altman to ask why this post on portfolio stats included the number of YC nuclear energy startups, but not the number of female cofounders or foreign-born cofounders (since Graham had mentioned them specifically.) He told me those numbers were in the works adding, "btw, i was originally planning to put diversity and financial metrics in the same post, but several people convinced me the diversity data deserved its own post."

Here's what he came up with:

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 industries [1], 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.

This is a straw man argument. Who is this person arguing that there is no sexism, except perhaps on Hacker News? (Hey, fellas!) And who would say tech has it worse among all other industries? The statistics Altman offers focus on the past few years, this year, or the current batch. A bummer since Y Combinator was founded in 2005 with huge network effects in Silicon Valley:

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. [...]

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 [...]

We have four female full-time partners (and in addition to advising startups, to a large extent they run YC).

Those four full-time female partners are not named. They are: YC cofounder Jessica Livingston, Graham's wife and the backbone of the operation by all accounts, Kat Manalac (hired in 2013, promoted to partner this April), Kristy Nathoo (hired in 2011, promoted to partner in 2012) and Carolynn Levy (hired in 2012).

In terms of race and ethnicity, he offers one line:

39.6% of the founders in our current batch were not born in the US, representing 27 different countries.

That's not very instructive considering that Paul Graham and Peter Thiel, for example, also both count as foreign-born. It's even less helpful when it's only the current batch and Y Combinator made an argument about foreign-born founders based on "a lot of empirical evidence."

These statistics focus on founders, which is important. But some of the dismaying stories I've heard come from women lower in the ranks. As one woman who worked at a Y Company told me after reading Altman's statements:

"Putting women in speaking positions and holding a female founders conference doesn't end the endemic sexism in YC startups. They are focused on 'women' events and 'female founders,' but what about those of us who don't fit that mold? Harassment and sexism still happens to non-founder employees who have no tools or legal protections to fight back."

Altman acknowledges the issue of culture fit and vows to help reduce it. But offers an optimistic take on the current state of affairs:

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.

Graham once spent an entire blog post recommending that founders take advantage of lax regulations on startups:

One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon.

Altman pivots from that approach:

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.

"HR" has become the code word du jour. After creating a work environment so inappropriate that one of the cofounders had to resign, GitHub reframed the debacle as an HR issue in the Wall Street Journal. The company, which raised $100 million in financing and was founded in 2008 just didn't have the right folks in place!

Previous discussions about sexism at Y Combinator have been shouted down as politically correct myopia that ignores the inherent riskiness of starting a company and law of meritocracy. They argue that Graham has done incredible things for the community. That is true and that might be why Altman's arguments sound so half-assed. He thinks the opposition cares about pretense.

However, all along what many people have tried to explain is that diversity is in Y Combinator's best economic interests. Criticism is not an indictment on Paul Graham. It's an attempt to prop their eyelids open: confirmation bias is blinding you to true talent and new markets at a time when its bad ideas abound.

Altman finally acknowledges that angle:

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.)

Personally, I think I said it better last year, but I am totally biased. Something me and YC have in common!

Update: Sam Altman reached out to say he was "super bummed" about this post. Sexism is one of life's big bummers! Here's his response via FB Messenger:

you don't hear people claim "there is no sexism in tech" all the time?...well, I'm happy to hear you think it's generally moved on. i still hear subtle undertones of it fairly often, and i think it really undermines the whole discussion. i asked several YC founders if i could share specific examples of their own experience, but they all asked me not to. it's difficult to fully anonymize. but i did generally talk about investors being inappropriate and also only focusing on the men in the room, which were the two most common issues.

and i certainly agree with this: "Harassment and sexism still happens to non-founder employees who have no tools or legal protections to fight back." which is why we're pushing for HR earlier in cos. and finally i said many months ago that its in our own self interest—i really believe that!

As I mentioned to Altman, those "commons issues" also occur within YC.

To contact the author of this post about Y Combinator, please email nitasha@gawker.com.

[Image via Flickr]