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Women In Tech Face Challenges Of Maternal Bias

PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) -- Silicon Valley has a well-documented gender discrimination problem, but more female entrepreneurs are coming forward saying they've been victims of "momism" or maternal bias.

When Ming Zhao and Amy Yuan both found out they were going to be mothers around the same time. It happened at a time when they were trying to raise another child so to speak -- a start-up called Proven, which offers data-powered customized skincare products.

Yuan had learned she was pregnant after suffering miscarriages. The pregnancy was a surprise for Zhao, since she was in the middle of freezing her eggs so she could focus on launching the business.

"At first my reaction was this was the worst of timings, because with all the news, you know, how hard it already is for female founders to found, as well as be invested in for a start-up. And with a baby, it's just an additional level of scrutiny." said CEO and co-founder Zhao.

Because of that, they decided to defer their acceptance into Y-Combinator -- considered the Harvard of startup accelerators in Silicon Valley. The pair would have pitched their startup to 200 investors on demo day. The advice came from the program's advisers.

"One was very pointedly like, 'We don't want you to be on stage during demo day talking about your company, presenting your company, while we're both visibly pregnant. You're going to get a lot of attention, but it's not the type of attention that you'd want,'" said Zhao.

That attention reflects maternal bias, according to San Diego-based diversity and inclusion specialist Kristen Knepper.

"Maternal bias; I called it the deadliest of the types of implicit bias directed toward women," said Knepper. "So women who are mothers are 79 percent less likely to be hired as compared to other women. They make on average $11,000 less as compared to other women and they are half as likely to be put up for a promotion."

Knepper says it creates a lose-lose situation.

"Because there's this idea that you will want to be home with your child, and if you don't want to be home with your child then there's something wrong with you," she added.

Layla Sabourian knows about maternal bias first-hand. When she was pitching her educational startup Chef Koochooloo to all-male investors, she was often asked about her family life.

"One investor literally asked me. He said, 'Well I really only invest in people who are 100 percent dedicated to the project, and that means no outside distractions, is that you?' And I said, 'Yes, that is me.' And he said, 'So you don't have kids?' And I said, 'No, I do have kids,'" said Sabourian.

The questions kept coming.

"They would tell me, 'Why now? Why wait til age 40 to start a company?' Or 'Who's going to take care of your kids when you do this?'" said Sabourian.

Sabourian gave up entirely on venture funding and instead applied for public funds.

"Pregnancy is such a natural part of life, right? It's the continuation of the human race. And yet in the startup and VC world, it's seen as such a detriment," said Zhao.

Even before Yuan's baby boy was born, Amy said many of the male software engineers on the team quit when they found out she was pregnant.

"Those are the people that I knew before. We were friends for many months, and we have worked on the project together," said Yuan.

She says recruiting new talent once her belly was visible wasn't any easier.

"Most of them choose not to know more about the company, they talk less passionately about their willingness to join," said Yuan.

Crunchbase, a database focused on tech start-ups, found that right now only 17 percent of startups have a female founder. And that number hasn't grown in the past 5 years. Even though many tech giants are now showing that work-life balance is important.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is taking two months off for the birth of his second child. And new parents at the company are given four months of paid time off, because Facebook says it strives to be a leading place to work for parents.

Zhao and Yuan are pushing their startup forward, and rejoining Y-Combinator in January.

"I think the best way to really make it better for future generations of female founders is to do well and to create a unicorn or at least create a really successful business so that people can see hey, it doesn't matter if you're female, or female with child or what not," said Zhao.

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