Women can set the corporate culture on day one when they start their own firms. It’s not a complete solution to sexism in the tech industry (especially in the era of #MeToo), but it does constitute one path forward.
But at the moment, the numbers are bleak. For starters, women only own five percent of all start-ups, earn only 28 percent of all computer science degrees, make up only seven percent of all partners at venture firms, and hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.
Tech giants such as Intel and Apple are donating hundreds of millions of dollars to deepen the hiring pool for women. Yet the number of women in major tech companies usually hovers around 30 percent of the workforce, give or take a few points. Meanwhile, “bro culture” is widely attributed as one big reason why women leave tech.
Entrepreneurship is one avenue for women to increase their numbers in tech, but progress is measured one company at a time. Their challenge is to implement a better culture in the companies they start.
Petty slights are more common than horror stories; but even so, unwanted hindrances cannot go ignored.
“There is a lot of unconscious bias within organizations, starting with the interview process up through the executive ladder. I’m very lucky that I don’t have a specific terrible story,” said Ashley Crowder, CEO and co-founder of Vntana, a provider of interactive holograms. “It’s more the everyday annoyance, like when my male co-founder and I are introduced to someone over e-mail, 50 percent of the time the person assumes I am the admin and asks me to schedule an appointment.”
Unconscious bias “has very real consequences,” added Annie Wang, co-president of Senvol, which helps companies implement additive manufacturing. “When I attend industry conferences with my male co-founder, we find that people look at him when asking technical, engineering-related questions, even though I’m the more technical one in the company.”
To Wang, this kind of slight is more than petty. “There are probably opportunities that are not presented to me… boards that I’m not invited to, projects that I’m not invited to propose on, meetings/outings that I’m not invited to attend.” Whether or not she’s been deliberately excluded from such events, being overlooked doesn’t help.
“When I was in industry, I had a boss once tell me during a review that I was ‘too nice,’” recalled Mandy Antoniacci, an early investor in Foray Collective, an all-female tech influencer start-up, and founder and CEO of Give Five. The world isn’t nice, that boss added, and she needed to get over it.
Antoniacci took a different lesson from that experience: “As leaders, only when we are welcoming of differences at the top do we truly reach our greatest potential and allow our companies to thrive.”
Brooklyn-based website maven Erin Bagwell endured something closer to the “MeToo” experience. Prior to taking up a place in tech, Bagwell worked at an ad agency. “I loved my job. I loved working,” she said. She also had to endure inappropriate remarks from her boss and being ignored at meetings, which eventually led to feeling unsafe in the workplace. She departed to start the website Feminist Wednesday.
Starting your own business is really an opportunity to get the culture right.
At Policygenius.com, the chance to get hiring right had to be seized early. When the company was small, nothing could be delegated; everyone had to pitch in, explained co-founder Jennifer Fitzgerald. But as a company grows, you sometimes get “fit” issues.
“You can hire a great company person who is not talented in a small company context,” she said.
Waiting until a firm reaches 50-100 people may be too late for a cultural course-correction. In Fitzgerald’s case, her twenty-third hire was an HR person: “We made sure to get ahead of the (hiring) issues.”
In terms of getting the right culture in place, it’s also important to recognize the value of employees. “Respect and communication are the two most important things for a successful team,” Crowder added. “When people feel respected, they are more willing to share ideas and be a team player, which always leads to better products and more innovation.”
Bagwell upped her work game by directing a documentary on women entrepreneurs (in which Wang was interviewed). That movie, “Dream Girl,” was financed with $10,000 raised on Kickstarter, and produced by a small, all-woman crew.
Wang’s biggest priority is to avoid preconceptions. “I think that having someone at the top who’s able to address their unconscious biases (regardless of whether the person a woman or a man) would help the organization as a whole, and would help ensure that women are given the same opportunities as men.”