It’s increasingly well known that women in STEM fields face pervasive bias that discourages them from pursuing these careers and makes work life difficult for those who do. Especially in overwhelmingly male fields like tech startups — where “brogrammers” reign supreme — women have found themselves at a disadvantage and sometimes outright unwelcome.
Leaders of tech startups should be looking at how their companies relate to women. It can be an intimidating issue to tackle, but keeping an open-minded attitude and asking a few important questions will get you headed in the right direction.
A Day of Reckoning
The fact that Silicon Valley has a sexism problem has been getting increasing attention for several years, including a 2015 report by female tech investors and execs that revealed the pervasiveness of gender discrimination. Large majorities of those surveyed reported being excluded from important events due to being women and to contending with unwanted sexual advances in the workplace.
Then last year, a series of scandals involving the treatment of women at the ride-sharing company Uber catapulted this issue into the spotlight. In February, a former employee of the company posted a shocking account of her time there, in which she faced overt sexism, misogyny, and stonewalling on the topic by HR. She concludes her post by noting how few women were left at the company: “Out of over 150 engineers in the SRE teams, only 3% were women.”
The Uber headlines were joined by others, and the tech startup community began to understand that this was a reckoning. Today, tech startups have two choices: Deal with this issue head-on or risk joining the ranks of businesses that are perceived as part of the problem.
What Can You Do?
What can tech startups do to make sure they’re on the right side of history on this issue? The list is long — and may cause discomfort to those unused to confronting injustice — but addressing these concerns in good faith and with clarity of leadership will likely be one of the best things you can do for your company.
Here are some ideas:
Become cognizant of your own biases. Look at the snap judgments and assumptions you make about women. Start wondering if you really understand their perspectives. Then learn as much as you can about women’s experiences. Listen to women. Believe women.
This may make you uncomfortable. Men may move through a period of guilt, defensiveness, or anger, feeling like they’re being accused of wrongdoing simply for being a man. Don’t let that shut you down — accept those feelings, keep learning, and come out the other side a stronger, more effective leader (and human). Be aware that this generally applies to men but women leaders can be as guilty of minimizing other women in the workplace as male leaders are; they live in and absorb the messages of the patriarchy just like men do.
Examine your hiring and recruiting practices for hidden bias. People carry biases they aren’t aware of, which influence how they evaluate people. Looking at resumes without names attached is a good way to reduce bias. Your recruiting practices, likewise, may favor men — think about whether you advertise jobs in places or in ways that subtly express that women aren’t welcome. Find ways to recruit that give women a better chance of finding you and feeling like they’ll be taken seriously.
Cultivate a woman-positive company culture. This doesn’t mean giving women special treatment but simply making sure the meeting rooms and hallways of your office are places where women feel seen and respected. Make it clear to staff and the general public that you take gender issues seriously, strive for gender diversity, and aim to make your company a good place for women to work.
Ask yourself: Does your website show exclusively pictures of white men? Change that so women see themselves as part of your business. Does your office environment include a lot of “bro”-type joking that may make women feel uncomfortable or excluded? Make it clear to staff that such conversation isn’t welcome. When conducting a business meeting, do the men speak over women, repeat their ideas and get credit for it, explain obvious things to them, or generally treat them in a demeaning or dismissive manner? At the least, the men who are doing those things should get reprimands and sensitivity training. But the worst offenders probably shouldn’t be working for you anymore, and the women who were subject to their behavior will feel validated and supported when they see them heading for the exits.
Develop proactive policies. Your company should be explicit about gender dynamics and concerns. Have a sexual harassment policy in place; hire a lawyer to create one if you don’t. Look at your maternity leave policies and see if they make women feel supported in living the full lives they may want. Make sure your HR staff is on board with both the letter and spirit of whatever policies you develop.
Look at your pay structure. Are the women on your staff getting equal pay for equal work? Are raises and bonuses for women equivalent to those men are getting? Does management refer to women who ask for raises or promotions as “too aggressive”? You have the power to fix these problems. And you should.
Analyze advancement opportunities through a gender lens. Identify any aspects of your advancement track that may advantage men over women. Is it easy for men to find mentors among more senior male staff people while women find it more difficult to do so? Are events where your staff network of a type where women may feel uncomfortable? An example of this is solar industry conferences, where there has been controversy surrounding the “booth babe” culture that employs scantily clad women and sexualized messaging to draw attention to solar companies and products. Find ways to eliminate such events from your calendar, or if that’s not possible, speak out publicly about offensive elements and try to provide alternative activities with positive messaging.
Consider the physical layout of your office. Do the women in your office have a convenient bathroom? Is there any private non-bathroom space where nursing mothers can go to pump milk? Think about what it’s like for women to work in the space you provide for them, then tweak your space to make sure their experience will be as pleasant and friction-free as their male colleagues’.
The common thread running through all these ideas is an insistence on looking seriously at what it is like for women in your workplace. If you adopt that notion as your North Star when confronting these issues as a leader, you’ll instantly be a better manager to a diverse workforce than the vast majority of tech employers.
And before you know it, a lot of smart, awesome, hardworking female talent will be knocking on your respectful, welcoming door.