Surprise! Startups are Sexist Too!

If you want my investment capital, show me something other than white dudes.

Oct 11, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Surely hip new startups are immune to the sexism that plagues the corporate world, right? Not so much, it turns out, according to a study examining the culture at startups like Twitter and Facebook. It turns out that in this grand post-sexist world of ours, the majority of executives are...wait for it...male! With a few exceptions, if you want to get ahead in the hot tech startup world, it helps to be a dude.

I don’t think this news comes as a big surprise to anyone, honestly -- when Emily sent me this link this morning I kind of went, “Well, yeah.” But, like other imbalances in the business world, it’s worth evaluating more closely, because it betrays some telling truths about the nature of gender equality in the US.

It’s popular to claim that feminism and other social justice movements aren’t necessary, and that we’ve basically achieved equality; now we’re just sorting out the details. As studies like this illustrate, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We, in fact, have a long way to go when it comes to gender parity, and that’s why advocacy for women and girls continues to be critical, especially in areas like business. Remember how women getting MBAs are only out for a husband? Sexism ain't going away on its own, kids. 

These kinds of attitudes, that women aren’t serious in business or don’t plan to stay the course, are common. And women in business are punished for wanting to balance families with their business priorities, something that’s traditionally been regarded as a woman’s problem. There’s a belief that women are inherently less fit than men to head up major companies simply on the grounds that, you know, they might have children and want time off or something. The nerve.

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You’d think startup culture would be different; living in the Bay Area, I’m familiar with the utopian dream exemplified by a lot of startups. You know the one, with the flex hours, freedom to telecommute, massage in the break room, and more. Tech startups are supposed to provide a whole new world of business, one where things like race and gender  shouldn’t matter as much as they do in the corporate world.

What’s interesting about this study is, well, startups position themselves as a radical departure from the corporate world. They claim to be doing things differently, changing the business climate, and thinking flexibly in a new world of business where women have purchasing power, clout, and potential. One would think that means upending traditional norms in terms of executive staffing, which tends to be predominantly white and male.

That’s evidently not the case, illustrating that the same problems inherent in the corporate world are also present in startups. When it comes down to it, men have the power to get ahead, and they tend to be more actively recruited, mentored, and ultimately hired than women, regardless of skill set and suitability for the job. The fact that startups aren’t immune to the gender divide may make some people uncomfortable, but pretending it’s not an issue won’t make it go away.

Social media in particular skews female, which makes it all the more remarkable that most social media startups are headed primarily by men. One would think that it might be a good idea to have women heading up companies with a strong female demographic –- especially since a lot of the recent explosions over policy issues at startups have been of particular concern to women.

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Take, for example, Google’s poor rollout of Buzz, which sparked anger across the Internet in addition to legitimate expressions of concerns about safety. The company apparently didn’t think there might be a problem with suddenly exposing data about people’s email contacts and connections in a way that forced them to opt out, rather than opting in, and was genuinely shocked when women web users expressed shock and horror. Had women been involved intimately in the development and planning process, that might have turned out differently.

Tech startups have also been prone to a slew of sexist events at conferences and other events; women working on the ground as programmers and other staff members routinely report sexism, and that extends through to the executives. In companies where brogrammer culture reigns supreme, it’s hard to imagine a female executive being hired, let alone getting respected and taken seriously in her role. While tech startups might like to pretend that they’re above it all, they share a lot in common with the viciously misogynistic world at other companies.

What about those notable exceptions? What are they doing differently, and how is it working for them? Some women-headed companies are advertising that fact and encouraging people to work with them to support women in business, while others are remaining more modest about the gender balance on their executive payroll, preferring to let actions speak louder than words. Those companies definitely need our support, because as consumers we can send a clear message about the people we’d like to see in charge.

With publicly traded firms like Facebook, there’s an even more immediate way at least some of us can vote to get more women on the board: buying stock and participating in shareholder elections and other events. Shareholder activism is hardly new and a number of women’s groups already engage in it, but I’d like to see a lot more of it. If companies can’t be persuaded to fix the gender imbalance because it’s the right thing to do, maybe they can be compelled to do it by their shareholders.

If you want my investment capital, show me something other than white dudes.

Image credits: Harald, Daniel Kruczynski.