Sheri Atwood

Sheri Atwood, founder and CEO of SupportPay, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Redwood City. (BECK DIEFENBACH)

When she started her child-support tracking business SupportPay, Sheri Atwood expected all kinds of suggestions - but not the tip she got from a female investor who suggested she dye her blonde hair darker to be taken more seriously by venture capitalists.

To Atwood, who eventually won her funding from other backers, the recommendation underscored an attitude in Silicon Valley that women make second-class entrepreneurs. If more women held the purse strings at venture capital firms, the attitude would change, she said.

Despite the lip service Silicon Valley has given over the past couple of years to the need to recruit more women venture capitalists, at senior levels the industry's gender balance hasn't budged, even as other industries with poor gender diversity show improvements.

The issue matters because women venture capitalists have a direct effect on the success of companies other women launch, say female entrepreneurs, including serving as role models and being more likely to spy potential in businesses that target other women.

About 4 percent of senior investing partners in U.S. venture capital are women, according to data from Pitchbook, a consulting firm. That is down slightly from 5 percent in 2010, and about even with 2008.

The numbers compare to 15 percent of executive officers at Fortune 500 companies, 24 percent of tenured faculty at U.S. business schools, and 20 percent of the U.S. Senate - all areas that have shown gains for gender parity in recent years while venture capital has stagnated.

A leading ranking of venture capitalists, the Forbes Midas List, noted just four women on its latest list of top 100 venture investors. A few years ago, five women typically made the list each year. And despite much discussion over the need to improve gender balance over the past few years, many of the top firms still have no senior women partners at all.

KEEPING QUIET

Some Silicon Valley women shy away from openly discussing the shortage and the climate for women, believing their comments would peg them as whiners and cut them out of deals in the case of venture capitalists, or funding in the case of entrepreneurs.

Among firms that Forbes ranked as top because they provided multiple partners to its Midas List, only one, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, appears to have more senior female investing partners in the United States compared with five years ago.

Kleiner has two women listed as lead partners in its most recent funds. It is battling a lawsuit brought by former partner Ellen Pao, who alleges harassment and discrimination. Kleiner denies the accusations.

Kleiner declined to comment, but in a blog post two years ago partner John Doerr said his firm was one of the most diverse in terms of gender, age and ethnicity.

Another venture capital firm, DFJ, has one senior woman in the United States, the same as five years ago. DFJ said it believed "a diverse group of people makes better decisions, both within our industry and the companies we fund." Accel, which declined to comment, has no senior women investors in the United States, although it had one previously.

Others, including Sequoia Capital, Greylock Partners, Benchmark, Meritech Capital Partners, NEA, Andreessen Horowitz, and Bessemer Ventures, had no senior women partners five years ago. They still don't today.

"No excuses," said a Sequoia spokesman. "We need to do better and we're pursuing a number of initiatives to help." Sequoia funds groups such as Girls Who Code, which teaches young women computer programming. Many venture capitalists say a lack of women in technology exacerbates the shortfall in venture.

Bessemer partner Ed Colloton said the firm believed in developing talent internally and had "a strong pipeline of future female partners" on the current team. A Greylock spokeswoman said the firm has discussed how to improve the situation, including backing startups with diverse executives in hope of cultivating a more diverse next-generation group of venture capitalists.

A spokeswoman for NEA said it was "focused on having a strong bench that will result in a more diverse GP (general partner) group over time." 

Andreessen Horowitz's Peter Levine and Benchmark's Bill Gurley, both general partners, said their firms were eager to hire a senior female investing partner but hadn't found the right fit. Meritech founding partner Paul Madera said he hoped to one day hire a female partner.

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