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How startups can create a culture where women can win

It’s critical for the male-dominated startup world to create an environment that’s welcoming and friendly to women.

How startups can create a culture where women can win
[Source photo: SolisImages/iStock]
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Silicon Valley’s bro culture is infamous. Bloomberg’s Emily Chang wrote an entire book about it aptly named Brotopia, where she called out the toxic culture women face in the tech industry. In software development, “shift left” refers to finding and fixing defects early in the product lifecycle. To fix bro culture, we need to shift left and start early in the company lifecycle: Startups must create a culture where women can win.

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I’ve heard people argue that the real problem is a lack of pipeline, that there aren’t enough girls choosing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The truth is, the industry is unattractive to women because it’s an unfriendly place, as I’ve learned firsthand working at startups.

Over half of women working in tech report experiencing gender inequality at work. Tech giants like Google (no, I never worked there) and Oracle (yes, I once worked there) have come under fire for sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Sidelining, mansplaining, patronizing, and pay gaps: A career in tech is still hard for women. Life in a startup is seemingly even harder.

“How do you do it?” people often ask me. Like most women, I’ve had to navigate subtle and not-so-subtle biases at different points in my own career. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that terms like “imposter syndrome” unfairly place the burden to adapt squarely on women. Instead, it’s the environment that must change. The onus is on startups to create a culture where women can thrive.

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Start at the top, and start early

Tech startups are overwhelmingly (72%) founded by men, who mostly recruit from within their own network and end up hiring more men who look just like them. The key to changing the company dynamic starts at the top. You need to bring on female leaders early—within the first five hires. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought that’s addressed after your company has a dedicated HR team. It must be deeply embedded in your company culture from day one.

At Rockset, I led all business functions and I was the fifth—and first female—hire. Soon after, I did coffee chats with more women in our recruiting pipeline and we had our first female engineer join us. Together, we played an active role in crafting our company policies and shaping the culture—and we made darn sure it was female friendly. When women see other women in senior roles, especially in the early stages, it is a clear signal that this startup values diversity and there’s a seat for them at the table. Many women have told me they research the diversity in company leadership before they even agree to interview at a startup.

Ensure equal access and equal pay

All too often, women are tasked with invisible work and don’t get the opportunity to lead high-visibility projects. When this happens, no matter how hard you work, you are seen as diligent but not strategic. To level the playing field, we must ensure that everyone has equal access to strategic projects. Coach everyone on the team to focus on impact. And provide transparency on how salary and promotion decisions are made.

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For example, even though some functions are not fully staffed in our company (we have a design team of one), we published detailed expectations for every level in every job function. Promotion criteria are publicly shared and fully transparent. New projects are openly discussed on team channels in Slack. Another example: I participated in Rockset’s board meetings from day one, which helped me get ahead of the most critical business issues. Best of all, salaries are based on industry standard data collected from comparable roles in comparable companies, ensuring equal pay. No more gap table.

Put families first

The stereotype that startups offer little-to-no work–life balance can deter women from even trying. This is especially true for women who are planning to have, or already have, children and worry they won’t be able to balance work and life.

Start by establishing parental leave policies, not just maternity leave. When we recognize that babies are born into families and see both new moms and new dads through the same lens, it is the greatest cultural equalizer. Additionally, since unlimited time off is not that effective, our CEO sends out periodic reminders that everyone is entitled to a minimum of three weeks vacation, and strongly encourages people to take the time off.

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Successful startups are a marathon, not a sprint. One of the best things about working at a startup is that when done right, it feels like an extended circle of family and friends. We genuinely care about each other and swap stories about our kids. By putting families first we have a happier, more engaged team of both men and women.

Recognize, don’t patronize

“Are you sure you can handle this right now?” is one of the worst questions you can ask a woman on your team. Although your intention was to be helpful, you just undermined the woman in question. Such patronizing behavior demonstrates a lack of trust in her ability to do her job and manage her personal obligations. Instead, create a safe environment where it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to ask for help at any time, and trust the people in your team to pull together as needed.

Women are statistically less likely than men to self-promote their accomplishments or negotiate for themselves. Startups must counter this by fostering a culture that routinely celebrates achievements in all-hands meetings and company Slack channels. Shoutouts from managers and fellow team members allow everyone to be seen and recognized, not just those who toot their own horn.

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Zero tolerance for sexual harassment

It is incredibly hard for women to speak up about sexual harassment. It is even harder in a startup because there is no formal HR department to start with. Again, having women in senior positions on the team from the early days creates an environment that inherently feels safer, because you know there are people in power in your corner. But it goes without saying that sexual harassment is simply not acceptable in any shape or form.

It’s time to put an end to the male-dominated Silicon Valley culture that stops women from reaching their full potential. Startups that don’t make this a top priority are missing out: It’s been proven time and time again that diverse teams make better decisions and better investments.

By fixing gender inequality early at the startup stage, we can transform the next generation of tech giants, eventually turning the entire industry into a place where women can win.

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Shruti Bhat is the chief product officer and SVP of marketing at Rockset.