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4 ways to make your startup gender diversity ready

by Richard Littledale, Lucy Thomas

I was lucky last year to get to spend some time visiting Matt, a friend of mine who is CTO at a startup based in Southwark. My aim was to experience first-hand leadership and ways of working in startup, and I spent most of the day sitting, watching and listening and learning. 

We also spent a session in the afternoon reviewing their values, how useful they have been to them, and the extent to which they are being lived. This was a particularly good time to do this, as they had just pivoted to focus their product on enterprises rather than direct customers, and it was reasonable to check out whether the principles that they had started with were still fit for purpose.

One value that had been seen as important from the start was diversity, but it was one where they did not feel they had succeeded. They were not wrong. Looking around the room you could see four white men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Three of them were kiwis. Two of them were cousins. It’s not surprising or unusual that this happens. The people who are most likely to join you on your madcap start up scheme in the early days tend to be those who know you well enough to believe in your idea, and who you trust enough to get the job done. You pull from the resources close to you, which may not be the most diverse.

The team I visited that day – despite their homogeneity – were sincere in their desire to make their organisation, and the technology field in general, more diverse. Gender diversity was an area that they were particularly passionate about, but they felt that circumstances were against them. Having worked hard creating their product for over a year, funds were running low, and expansion plans would have to wait until invoices started to come in. So there was nothing they could do until they could start hiring.

But I pressed them on that - were they doing everything they could to be ready to make their organisation more diverse when the time came? When they need to expand they will need to do so quickly. Would they know where to go to find women with the expertise they needed? And if they could, would women want to join their team?

Gender diversity is a problem in tech. Some of these challenges relate to education – ComputerWeekly surveyed a sample of tech professionals, and the results showed that 60% of men had studied a STEM subject, but only 48 of women. Gamergate revealed a seedy and depressing undercurrent of misogyne in tech, and the recent Uber blog by Susan Fowler showed that the cultures of some leading tech firms create an environment where addressing evidence of sexual harassment is less critical than keeping top male talent. But the problems are too big, too systemic. How and where do you start chipping away at the result of generations of unhelpful stereotyping? And how can a small, cash strapped start up do their bit. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Build your networks, and don’t be afraid to ask for help doing it. There is a myth in leadership that female leaders like nothing more than to pull up the ladder once they have climbed to the top. YSC experience, anecdotally and through the hard data we collected in the 'Cracking the Code' project, shows the opposite is true. Senior female leaders are absolutely committed to giving women a leg up. So don’t be afraid to ask senior leaders for help and suggestions about how to build your network and source great female developers.
  2. Make sure your workplace is inclusive. Sarah Rutherford (2011) has identified some of the areas of a work culture that can exclude women. These include physical layout and workplace, working hours and informal socialising. When you think of the workplace though also think of culture. A culture that prioritises diversity does not come about by accident. Define your values and culture early, and create an environment where you expect to be held to account. The myth of the infallible founder may work for Snap Inc and the stock market (so far), but it does not help less privileged voices to be heard.
  3. Recognise the diversity you already have. Diversity is not just about gender and ethnicity, it is also about thinking style and personality. Work as a team to understand and value the differences you all bring. This will shape you as a team that can welcome and value new and different members.
  4. Make sure equality starts at home. Many traditional diversity interventions – flexible working, home working – have at their heart an implicit assumption about the roles that men and women play at home, particularly in relation to children and the bread winner/primary care giver divide. If you and your partner are not dividing household and child rearing responsibilities equally, ask yourself why. See Cordelia Fine’s 'Delusions of Gender' for more challenge in this area.

Following my session in Southwark I was fortunate that – through YSC’s network – I was able to put Matt in touch with two female leaders at a leading network strategy and technology company. Over coffee Matt talked with them about his organisation and his product, and picked up some really practical tips to build his network. It was a real pleasure to see a startup on their way towards making a small dent in the industry’s diversity challenge.

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