“Startup has come to be defined as a space where anything goes,” says Rahul Gonsalves, the founding partner of Uncommon, a Bengaluru-based design studio that works with startups and established business.
“Therefore, a small number of people multitask to keep a common vision alive. And the Silicon Valley imitators in India – of the concept of coming together to make big money – have always been a concentration of power and inequality,” Rahul says.
In conversation with TNM for our three part series on women and the tech startup space, Rahul says that while hiring policies and questioning the bro culture are important – there are other concrete steps that organisations can take to address the gender gap.
“These startups provide a way to marry traditional know-how of jobs roles with new technology and therefore are highly attractive places to work,” says MD*, a gay-identified man, who works at a Bengaluru-based technology startup.
“But the problem might be our limited imagination of the concept of startups, and therefore, misguided expectations from them,” cautions Rahul.
“The venture capitalist firms that put money and provide patronage to these startups are problematic in the first place. In turn, they are betting on organisations to optimise things that are antithetical to the ideas of diversity and inclusivity,” he says.
While Rahul paints a dark reality of startups, he adds that perhaps it would be best to destroy the current notion of startups and restart from scratch.
1. Learn from companies that have good diversity policies’
“Present-day startups with their mottos of ‘must move fast and break things’ don’t mean patriarchal structures of industry. Instead, it has come to mean destroying social contracts for profit. Case in point: Facebook – the face(book) that launched a thousand startups,” Rahul says. "It has signaled our move to gig economy, where earlier assurances like health care to pension, which other workers from a previous generation took for granted weren't deemed cool enough to be included in the open-plan office of today," he adds.
So to actually address matters of parity and inclusivity, he suggests that it might be wiser to take leads from the companies that grew in this ecosystem but don’t think of diversity as a bad word.
Companies like Flipkart, Urban Ladder, Myntra are examples of this achievement of a sense of parity and inclusivity, Rahul tells TNM.
“These organisations have great maternity and paternity leave policies, and have shaped their policies and cultures in way that doesn’t make diversity and inclusivity a ‘women’s issue’ but rather sees it as sensible and sensitive steps to becoming a better company,” he adds.
2. Menstrual leave and child care is important, but so is recreation
Women at the workplace shouldn’t be shamed for having bodies as well, says Deepa Venkataraman of nilenso, a Bengaluru-based employee-owned software cooperative.
“We have a menstrual leave policy, which simply introduces the conversation into the workplace without making it a dirty thing. We also have a parental leave policy that gives our members the option of a six-month paid leave, for both partners,” she says.
Deepa’s pet peeve seems to be that in designing inclusive spaces for women, the only additions seems to be child-care facilities and such.
“It isn’t that I don’t see these as important facilities for an inclusive space, but it seems like women get care and men get facilities like a recreation room to blow off steam. Don’t women feel like blowing off steam? Or don’t we think so?” she asks.
“At our workplace, we’re deeply invested towards having no-gender specific spaces while still providing women tampons and extra facilities. But we have never seen it dampen their effectiveness, in fact, we’ve found it just makes it easier for them to do their best,” she adds.
3. Evolve the work culture
For Chryslynn of Serein, the Bengaluru-based organisation working to bring parity and inclusivity into the startup space with data-driven methods, “startups have to decide if facetime or deadlines are more important.”
“Startups see themselves as the evolution of work, so it must also be the evolution of work culture too, which has to be diverse and inclusive. Instead of seeing women as a liability because they might leave, which isn’t always because of factors in their control, we might need to ask: how do we keep these women working? The solutions are easier with numerous ways to collaborate online. Allow employees flexible time, unless they are required to be physically present for meetings, which can also be worked around,” she says providing real, actionable solutions.
The misconception that women “will leave anyways” must be changed, insists Deepa. “We’re completely accepting if a woman wants to quit work. At times, those reasons might not be under her control, but because we'd rather that women don't work. We don't work to find solutions for those societal pressures,” she says.
“But if we're willing to change business systems then culture must be changed too – and women need to be provided certain amenities to reach their full potential. It isn’t like men aren’t given those kinds of breaks, it just seems like it isn’t the case because it has been integrated into workplace culture,” she asserts.
“Don’t dismiss women from the room even before they enter. And if they don’t want to work there, ask them why and try to fix it. It might save you interviewing someone else unnecessarily,” she adds.
4. Remember that more diversity is better for business, too
Making these major shifts simply makes better economic sense and will help companies reach those targets, MD tells TNM. “In the early days of the startup boom, it might not have mattered but a journey towards maturity in the current climate means expanding one’s employment base. Opening up brings fresh thinking and this potential cannot be ignored,” he points out.
“And integrating women into the workplace can’t be restricted to women at the managerial level alone, it must be done across the board, otherwise it won’t work,” he warns.
Rahul notes that Myntra has a employee base that matches its client base, “which means that they can empathetically relate to their customers, which in turn is good for their business. If products were developed through an active participation of all the stakeholders, then you’d just have a better product that will be profitable.”
5. If needed, take help to make the workplace better
Recognising that there is a problem might be a good step, and there are enough external resources that could make these transitions to a better functioning workplace more possible.
“Since there’s a need for this change, there are organisations working towards bringing them about, it’s just matter of tapping in,” says Chryslynn of Serein, an organisation which uses data-driven methods to convince companies of parity and inclusivity. “Since everyone is interested in the bottom line, we’re simply saying it does pay-off in the long run,” she adds.
“I think we stayed away from the moniker of “startup” because we wanted to set ourselves free from the dire expectations that came along with it. We wanted everyone that works with us to understand that a job is a job, and they should have a life outside of it,” says Rahul.
“While on the hiring front, we’ve tried and failed and continue to try to do something about the gender disparity, we’ve also tried to create a work culture that has sensible work timings, adherence to deadlines, vague vacation policy, no gender-specific spaces in an attempt to create something welcoming to everybody,” he adds.
“Though, there’s still a lot more for us all to do. But it isn’t for men to decide the course – we should all just may be begin to listen,” he says.