Quora: Is it fair for men & women to have different criteria for Y-Combinator, MIT & Caltech?

Summarized from a discussion I had in the comments on Quora.

Original Question: How could Y Combinator be more female-friendly?

This isn't so much about how YC treats women once they get in, but about ways to balance the gender ratio.

The Discussion

One answerer suggested setting up processes that encourage more women to apply, without adjusting the actual acceptance process. He claimed this was how Caltech differentiated itself from MIT, and that it was a superior approach...that Caltech, unlike MIT, "doesn't artificially balance its gender ratio by tweaking admissions criteria."

He felt this "increase recruiting only" approach to increasing the number of women at Y-Combinator was better than also adjusting the admissions criteria because "the startup community was would reject anything smacking of gender quotas."

My Response to this Answer

To me, it seems that it may (or may not) be appropriate to have different "criteria" for men versus women applicants, but it depends on two things (and this applies to both entry to college and programs like Y-Combinator):

  1. What is the institution's overall goal? Is it simply to reward applicants' past achievements, or is it to bring about a particular future?

  2. Is the "normal" criteria for evaluating applicants truly unbiased?

For college, I think many applicants reflexively view admission as a REWARD earned by a deserving, smart, hard-working student. Nothing more.

MIT's leaders, though, have bigger ideas about what MIT's role in society is and how they can best affect it. And they've concluded they can better pursue these goals and have a bigger impact on the world if they educate more top women. Even if some of those women don't score as well on some supposedly unbiased criteria. (I can't comment on Caltech.)

Is it fair? I don't know. We expect universities to be fair as well as work for the betterment of the world. In some case these goals might seem to conflict.

But for Y-Combinator, the reasons for changing the admissions criteria to admit more female founders (given the current dearth) seem more clear: they should make more money if they do. Even if doing so seems "unfair."

First, most YC founders are going to build a company that focuses on problem they've encountered in their own lives. Today's result is YC's disproportionate focus on the problems of young, single, technophile businessmen--who control only a small portion of the world's spending. Bring in more women (and more minorities, more older people, and more people from the third world) and you'll uncover more problems to solve, and have that many more business opportunities.

Second, there are lots of studies showing that companies with strong representation of women on the board and in the executive ranks perform better.

Perhaps any recruitment/selection/closing process that results in a paucity of female founders should be viewed as flawed because, by definition, it will miss out on huge portions of the market and potential opportunities.

Sue Raisty

Product management geek, born-again engineer, adoptive mother of boys, coach & mentor, mountain trail runner, tinkerer, no-bull communicator, wannabe writer, room mother & compulsive researcher.

Silicon Valley, California http://blog.sueraisty.com