Do women need a tech degree to succeed?

Silicon Valley CEO conducts a survey with about 100 female tech entrepreneurs and finds that 84 percent don't have science, technology, engineering or math degrees.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Anne Wojcicki (right), the co-founder of prominent genetics testing company 23andMe, endorsed the survey's conclusions. James Martin/CNET

Everyone from top tech executives to President Barack Obama have said that a degree in science, technology, engineering or math will help more women get jobs in Silicon Valley. But a new survey shows that's not necessarily true.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, CEO of Joyus, a startup that creates short videos for online shopping, published the results of a survey that she conducted among roughly 100 female tech entrepreneurs. The results were published on ReCode on Wednesday and show that 84 percent of the entrepreneurs don't have so-called STEM degrees.

"While we acknowledge the importance of STEM," Cassidy wrote, "it is very possible for women who do not hail from STEM to start tech."

Silicon Valley tech firms have been under the spotlight, accused of an atmosphere that fosters gender discrimination and keeps women from being promoted into leadership roles. The majority of top tech firms have less than 32 percent women in their workforce, with even lower numbers in leadership and in the technical ranks, according to diversity reports released by 11 companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, the gender discrimination lawsuit between prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and former junior partner Ellen Pao in March escalated the debate over how women are treated in Silicon Valley.

Cassidy has worked in Silicon Valley for 18 years. Before starting Joyus in January 2011, she worked at several tech companies including Google, Amazon, Polyvore, Yodlee and News Corp. As the topic of women in tech has gotten increasing amount of attention, Cassidy said one group that has been left out of the narrative are female founders and CEOs.

"What's been missing is any perspective from women founders," Cassidy said. "As opposed to everyone else commenting on it, I thought shouldn't we be commenting for ourselves?"

Besides finding that the majority of female entrepreneurs don't have STEM degrees, the survey also shows that 37 percent of the respondents say their top mentors are male. And almost half of the women, 43 percent, have children. Still, the majority of the survey respondents, 65 percent, said they've dealt with gender bias in the workplace. And more than 35 percent said they've experienced sexual harassment. It's these issues that got to the heart of the gender discrimination lawsuit between Kleiner Perkins and Ellen Pao.

"My feeling post-Ellen Pao was a sense of 'gosh what's to do?'" Cassidy said.

In addition to publishing the survey results, Cassidy also made a short list of suggestions for companies to be more transparent about gender diversity and ways to attract female employees. Her ideas include adding women to boards of directors, boosting family planning benefits, and venture capitalists having a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and demanding the same of their portfolio companies.

"We know diversity enhances company performance," Cassidy said. "I wanted to provide some very simple examples [of how to increase diversity]."

Cassidy hopes to continue the conversation with female entrepreneurs through a project she's called #ChoosePossibility. For the project, she's created a webpage that lists hundreds of tech companies with female founders and growth CEOs and encourages new companies to join the list.

"This is just a small number of the thousands of women who have started tech companies to help highlight what is possible today," Cassidy wrote.