From beer nights, to war mongering language, to equating ‘passion’ and bringing a toothbrush to office – much needs to change to ensure women can thrive in these spaces.

Startups should stop being boys clubs How bro-culture hurts women in techImage for representation.
Delve Demographics Sunday, June 17, 2018 - 12:11

In part 1 of the Women and the tech Startup space series, we looked at how organisations must make, and follow policies to ensure that they are inclusive – thereby making space for more women in the industry. But even after companies have employed enough women, getting the men to harmoniously work with them, experts say, is a problem.

“A major part of our development team was based in Gujarat and they would refuse to directly communicate with the women at our Bengaluru office during projects,” says Suhas Entur, project manager at OODI, a design and development firm.

“They wouldn’t reply to their emails, respond to chats on Hangouts, or even text back. It always required either me or Varun [Kapoor, the founder] to step in and get it going,” he says.

“So the problem that suddenly cropped up for us was that we had worked to fix the gender parity at our company, but we still had to break the boys’ club mentality,” Suhas tells TNM.

The boys’ club mentality – or the “bro culture” – is a carry-over from the college days of employees, that acts as yet another potent exclusionary factor in these professional spaces.

“The great thing about startups is that young people drive these companies, and therefore, they’re innovative, experimentative and risk-taking, and most times are from the best colleges – the IITs, the BITS Pilani, the National Institutes of Technologies – because they’ve been better prepared for these challenges,” explains MD*, a gay-identified man, who works at a Bengaluru-based technology startup.

“Though, while their business ideas and solutions might be experimentative and risk-taking, it doesn’t reflect at all in the vibe of the companies that they startup,” he adds.

Workplaces aren’t hostels

The top-tier institutions don’t have much diversity and that percolates into the makeup of the workforce, says Chryslynn of Serein, an organisation working towards parity and inclusivity in the startup space through data-driven methods

“The coaching institutes, which have a great track record of successfully getting students into these top institutions, are located in places like Kota, Patna and the like, which acts as a hurdle for women aspirants to these courses,” she explains, referring to residential coaching institutes. This disparity seems to continue into the start-up ecosystem because no one looks outside of their colleges, or even hostel networks.

“It isn’t just women who feel excluded from these boys’ clubs,” echoes MD. He says that anyone who doesn’t speak that “bro-code” gets left behind, so it could be someone from another set of institutions, a queer man, or anyone who doesn’t present as hypermasculine.

“You need to have that certain kind of exposure, which makes you a ‘global citizen’ or ‘cool’, which everyone doesn’t have access to,” he tells TNM. “They might still be very good at their role in the organisation. But for women who might not come from these backgrounds, these cultural tropes can be alienating. It means they might be interested in work but don’t have the know-how of dealing with these new situations for them,” he adds.

Women have to work harder to break in

At workshops, Chryslynn says, “everyone not ‘in’ has to do a lot of breaking through.” First off, there isn’t awareness that this is a problem. “If everyone in the company is male, then these concerns never come up – it isn’t that all of these infractions are conscious decisions, but it is important to ask, what do I do unconsciously?” says Chryslynn.

While that might be an inward process, Chryslynn and her team feel that there are outward ways to start the change. “We can start by changing the images in the room, the invited speakers to events, work towards steering clear of manels and looking at the language used to title projects, describe processes and such,” she suggests.

Changing the culture at a workplace is an active process, “it can’t be be an occasional concern,” says MD, who is completely annoyed by the status quo.

“The excuse seems to be that companies are under so much pressure from their investors to grow that everyone is in a warzone. The founders are seen as warriors leading the charge, which makes it even more important that they [the founders] put effort into changing the culture,” he says.

“Even this battle, war-mongering language around startups and their achievements is extremely off-putting and exclusionary to me, I can only imagine how it must be for women,” he adds.

Though, in the case of Urvashi Goverdhan, a former product manager and now actor-blogger, “being a tomboy proved to be an advantage” in the bro-culture environs of these startups.

“Identifying as non-binary and being one-of-the-boys was really rewarding for me at my former company,” Urvashi tells TNM. “I was applauded once at a meeting with a VP, when I yelled out “this shit is not happening,” but I could see that the other women employees weren’t finding their feet at the organisation,” she adds.

Every Friday at Urvashi’s last company used to be a “social evening” with dinner and drinks, and it was always focussed on the latest craft beer offerings. “I’m a beer drinker, so it never excluded me, but a lot of other women would feel left out of these interactions. Personal preferences shouldn’t matter, but at this company, it proved to be a terrible career choice, because men and tomboyish women – between critiquing the beer and swapping sports scores – would be the ones pulled onto prized projects,” she explains.

And when the women decided to organise other kinds of social evenings at the same office, none of the men would show up to these events. “It was always categorised as a women’s thing,” Urvashi says. She was always also preferred for travel and conferences because she wasn’t “girly and high maintenance.”

“Hard-working women were looked over because it was assumed that they couldn’t get away from their family responsibilities or wouldn’t want to,” she adds.

Ask women what needs to change

The other approach – that “everything must be prepared beforehand for the inclusion of women or LGBT employees” – doesn’t work either for MD.

“Setting policy helps, because if these decisions were left up to the individuals, then they wouldn’t include anyone other than more of themselves – there would be no women or sexual minority employees. Work must be done to populate every department with women, and more because the lack of diversity makes the few in these organisations feel like they have to wait for someone else to think for them,” he says.

“Ask women or anyone else and they will tell you what needs to change for them to feel more included. You need to have representation of these diverse employees to even ask,” he vehemently adds.

Deepa Venkataram of nilenso, a Bangalore-based employee-owned software cooperative says, it can even start small. “Next time you’re at a conference, just say hello respectfully to the few women, or even at your workplace. If they run away from you or don’t immediately welcome your friendship, accept that reaction, because not too many men have ever made that effort with them before,” she tells TNM.

Shape up or ship out

But more importantly, she insists that these ideas of “a cool start-up” must change for anything to truly stick.

“Besides, the need that everyone must watch the same YouTube videos and movies, or read and like the same books and collect comics to be considered cool, is oppressive enough. Though, the real problem is that lack of infrastructural set-up is also rendered as cool at these startup spaces,” she points out.

She gives TNM the example of a male friend’s startup working out of a guest-room in his father’s hotel, which made it an uncomfortable space for women employees even if they were interested in the job being offered. “It isn’t silly to wonder: How could she tell her family and friends that she works out of a hotel room with boys?” Deepa says.

There’s also the idea that being unhygienic and grubby, eating instant noodles, working late nights and loudly swearing a lot are things that make a company cool. Deepa says these  notions really bug her.

“Startups must stop operating as satellites of their hostel rooms, they must shape up or ship out,” says Deepa.

Make room for everyone

Companies must make room for their diverse and inclusive employee base, instead of expecting and ensuring employees fit into their mold.

“Decisions cannot be driven by the majority in the company, but rather should be equitably made by all the stakeholders involved,” says Deepa. “All decisions – the messages behind the slogans that go up the walls, the colour of the walls, the furniture in the space, the kinds of recreation or care facilities accessible to everyone, must be decisions that everyone equally contributes to figuring out. It would be even more sensible and sensitive if the women and non-male employees were listened to more,” she adds.

Opening out the traditional hiring patterns and even the notions of workspace might be a start – it doesn’t have to be welcoming from the start but it definitely doesn’t have to be hostile either.

Though, it would seem another Cerberus guards the gates that allow women into the burgeoning startup ecosystem: it is the notion of passion.

Is the idea of ‘passion’ overrated?

“Your life must take a backseat in pursuit of growth for the company. While this expectation might be high-minded, it is extremely easy for male employees to execute this requirement because society doesn’t require them to be responsible for home or family life,” says MD.

Destroying this notion of passion and work ethic might be another important step in opening up this space for women employees.

“Output, adherence to deadline and quality of work should be the measures of passion – not bringing a toothbrush to the office,” says Deepa.

She adds, that we might also have to work on making it less acceptable for women to quit their workplace. “Being able to, or willing to give up on having a life isn’t a sign of good worker, it is someone who doesn’t do time-management well. We might have to insist on finding creative strategies to keep women in the workplace – it might be opening up work from home policies, channelling her skill-sets into another project and so on,” she says, shifting the responsibility of holding on, to the management.

Startups becoming extensions of their toxic male campus cultures can be changed when everyone decides that it is hampering the economics of the business.

“The reality is that it must make financial sense to companies to implement these changes,” cautions MD. “Though in my own personal experience, I’ve seen that women employees don’t balance out the ‘bad men’ but rather they bring a whole other set of skills into the room. Especially during the period of growing pangs, where male egos could turn the entire conversation into an aggressive one – the presence of women facilitates debate, discussion and discourse,” he adds.

For Deepa, an inclusive workplace must be more empathetic to the personal situations and struggles of their employees. “There’s the misguided idea that one joins startups to make big money and then quit to live off it. Very few people have that kind of luxury. Therefore, if we are serious about growing our companies into successful ones, then we must take care of our employees – and women just need that extra bit more of attention,” she says.

*Name changed

In this three-part series, TNM looks at women and the technology startup space. In the final section of this three-part series, we will look at the best practices of organisations with gender parity and more inclusive workspaces. 

Read Part 1: Why there are few women in the tech startup space, and how companies can change this

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