Women need help to navigate their stewards, society and safety – and startups need to acknowledge this in order for women to thrive in these spaces.

Why there are few women in the tech startup space and how companies can change thisImage for representation
Delve Demographics Wednesday, June 13, 2018 - 12:43

Over two years ago, on January 16, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolled out his government’s Startup India plan, which promised competitive tax exemptions, major simplification of the set-up process, fast-tracking of patent reforms, fresh injection of capital into the Fund of Funds for Startups and the facilitation of incubation and training for this sector. It was delivered with great fanfare but the first year saw great inaction, in the second year, there was more done to engage and encourage but still not enough.

As of January this year, the government added new goals to its Startup India plan: first, a ranking system that will allocate funds to states based on their startup related activities and second, by catalysing women entrepreneurship, which will also be factored into the distribution of funds.

While these initiatives have the right spirit, it might need more than the will of the government for the second new goal to be achieved. It doesn’t look very promising because the numbers show otherwise.

Of the 6,300 startups currently recognised by the Startup India plan, only 2,488 have a woman as founder, director, or partner. There is no data available on exactly how many women are employed in these startups.

While it is true that startups in the ecosystem have begun to address these disparities of diversity within their organisations through amendments in hiring policy, the setting up of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) committees, or have even begun to work with external facilitators to become more inclusive spaces, there seems to be a “pipeline issue”.

Dreams stuck in the pipeline

“The pipeline will always be a problem,” says Chryslynn D’Costa, head of research and design at Serein, a Bangalore-based organisation that works with startups to bring parity and inclusion into the workplace. The “pipeline” Chryslynn mentions refers to the growing pool of technology institutions and vocational facilities cropping up across the country that feed into the potential employee base of these startups and other companies.

“Inclusiveness is picking up, sometimes because the startup doesn’t want to lose a good employee and other times because it might cause a public relations scandal,” she tells TNM. “But unless, institutional bias changes in the hiring pipeline, nothing will change at the workplace,” she warns.

Most startups tend to focus their hiring efforts entirely on the top-tier ones, which further propagates the gender disparity, which is already present in these educational centres, adds Chryslynn.

“Therefore, hiring managers will have to go above and beyond their jobs to track down qualified women outside of these top-tier tech institutions, if they don’t want to further perpetuate these disparities,” she explains.

“It would mean stepping outside of tried-and-tested methods of recruitment, looking outside of the saturated pools to actually hire new talent. It isn’t that there aren’t qualified women out there, but one has got to actively look for them,” she adds.

Developer doesn’t equal man

Even changing up hiring strategies and “being singularly focussed on increasing the number of women in the workplace” isn’t always an easy undertaking, says Suhas Entur, project manager at OODI, a Bangalore-based design and development firm.

During a recent round of hiring at his company, he decided to set-aside the male applicants for the new positions and look at the portfolios of the female applicants. “In my personal experience, just 20% of the total applicants were women. And it was extremely difficult to bring the women to the table for the interview process even when they were extremely qualified,” he points out.

At first, he admits, he didn’t understand the reasons behind them not showing up for the interviews even after they’d been set up and confirmed, until he decided to follow up with one of the women candidates.

“It seemed clear that she had be crying. She asked me if it would be worth coming for the interview at all, and I had to explain to her that we couldn’t assure her a position without the interview and she would stand a better chance if she completed the interview process,” he says.

She did show up for the interview and told him that at every interview until then, she had been asked for her marital status or when she intended to get married or have kids. She had become frustrated with this line of questioning and had given up.

At another interview, Suhas was told by one of the female candidates that she had a ten-month-old child, who lived with her mother in Tirupati, and while she saw him on the weekends, she was open to working remotely on those days if needed. “She told me this even before she sat down,” Suhas says.

In his experience, he has found that women developers and designers are better team players. Another reason why women developers are better hires, he says, is because they’re cheaper – a ‘benefit’ that is deeply problematic. “Apples to apples, women are simply cheaper on a cash-strapped start-up than men because the inherent bias still remains that when we say developer, we mean man,” Suhas says.

Only wives, never workers

Deepa Venkataraman, a member of nilenso, an employee-owned software cooperative based out of Bengaluru, says that one of the many reasons women don’t enter the industry is the public perception of the startup space. “The startup ecosystem is still perceived as a “Men Only Zone” erasing even the few women, like me and my contemporaries, who managed to cut our teeth in this industry,” she says.

While at all jobs, women are asked gender-specific questions that baffle them, the idea that startups need all hands on deck really affects the hiring choice, because women are seen as homemakers alone, she says.

“The experience of the interview process at these organisations isn’t particularly pleasant for a woman either, and too many of these kinds of jabs and you might want to eventually want to sit it out,” she says.

Deepa tells TNM of her own horrifying interview experiences of being asked “Are you married?”, being told “to give the company a heads-up before deciding to settle down” and instructed to keep her personal life “on hold for two years while the company grows.” She found that none of her male co-workers or peers have never been asked these questions.

There is this all-pervading attitude that women at the workplace will either stymie the progress of any organisation, or they don’t deserve to be there at all.

“At a recent tech startups conference in Slovakia, everyone there assumed that I’d come to the conference accompanying my colleague as his wife. They couldn’t fathom that I’d made it there on my own credentials, which further diminishes the status quo of women in this field,” Deepa tells TNM.

She asks, if the women in the startup space feel constantly intimidated, dismissed, uncomfortable or in battle-mode – why would they encourage other women to join them?

Deepa insists that it’s very important for organisations to ask themselves through each initiative: Will this action actively put women off from working here? What are we unconsciously doing to make this an unattractive work environment for women? What are we going to do consciously to change this perception?

Need for parity and inclusion

The lack of active engagement with this need for parity and inclusion in the startup space might also be the reason.

“Companies seem to either setup these policies (for parity) in their early days as a gesture of goodwill and good practice, but never tie it into the fibre of the firm. It becomes an issue that must occasionally be dealt with,” says MD*, who works at a Bengaluru-based technology startup. As a gay-identified man, MD feels on “the outside of this macho machinery” because he doesn’t have traditional masculine qualities.

He also points out that committees to oversee the diversity and inclusion of the company don’t always have the authority to implement the changes that need to be made.

“The diversity and inclusion committees and their agendas must be a part of every Town Hall meeting of the organisation, or any other meeting that drives and defines the company’s policy,” he insists. “Otherwise, it doesn’t get integrated into the work culture and remains at the policy-level, and becomes another hurdle to the company’s growth in the long-run,” he adds, alluding to the expenses of fixing disparity, but also the professional ethics that women bring to these spaces that prove profitable in time.

Chryslynn and her team at Serein have found through their culture surveys conducted at the 40 startups they currently work with, that even making parity and inclusion as part of the company policy makes women feel safer.

“It can’t stop at just the hiring policies though, a workplace that’s inclusive and open to all gender-expressions and sexual minorities should be the ultimate motivation. It can’t be just namesake or token gesture, it must colour all policy at the workplace,” she says.

Mini glass ceilings

Chryslynn provides a few multi-pronged approaches that must be followed alongside these hiring policy changes. “The language of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) guidelines must be simplified and translated, everyone must be able to read it. It must be made available and accessible to everyone at the organisation – each of the employees must understand the boundaries defined in these guidelines,” she says.

“Socialising events, where most networking takes places, are always organised around beer nights, alcohol and such, which are immediately exclusionary,” she points out. “It doesn’t just leave out women but men from other classes. The imagination and logistics around these events must be thought out better. These are the kinds of mini glass ceilings that women constantly encounter that make them feel that, forget about moving up, even lateral growth might not ever be possible in the organisation – so why should I be here?” she explains.

There are other systemic steps required to make workplaces safer – including getting in and out of the physical office.

“It might even be providing transport, or even helping your female employee with finding a tenancy that doesn’t have an annoying landlord, so that she can work those late nights that you might want her to,” adds Deepa from nilenso.

“Women need help to navigate their stewards, society and safety. These factors should be acknowledged, only then can they be addressed, and begin to make moves in the right direction. These are basics that the larger companies seem to understand – or at least that was my personal experience while working in internet banking,” she says.

So, while access to funders, incubators and training might be increasing for women entrepreneurs, the workspaces themselves aren’t changing much. In the period between 2004-2011, our economy showed a 7% growth, and the same percentage of women left the workforce in that time. There are many reasons for this alarming attrition rate of women from the workforce but there can be broadly categorised into “push and pull factors,” according to Chryslynn.

Two years ago, when applied math graduate Ishani Roy started Serein, she was interested in collecting and looking at data to determine the reasons that women were leaving the workforce but wanted to also use the same data to keep them gainfully employed. “While companies can’t do anything about societal factors, which ‘pull’ women out of the workforce, they can definitely stop ‘pushing’ them out,” says Chryslynn. “The ‘push’ factors are sexual harassment, being overlooked for promotion, pay disparity and so on. These shortcomings could easily be fixed by the organisation,” she says.

Using a data-driven approach has helped Serein show companies that these changes in their employee base aren’t simply about “quota-filling”, but actually opens them up to a bigger, better pool of talent, which will definitely reflect in the bottom lines of their organisations,” Chryslynn tells TNM.

“Therefore, one should make more than a cursory effort in this direction, because it actually affects the company reaching the goals set up by its investors and funders,” she adds. This factor – meeting financial deadlines set by investors – always being the excuse for not focussing on the company as a whole.

“A simple change in policy won’t do anymore – the recruitment strategy and culture of these startups must be changed – it must be made more available to women, other gender expressions and sexualities. Then, if anyone of them chooses not to work here, it is fine, but they must have an option,” MD says. “When there are women and more across all departments at these startups, then these employees will claim the space, but it must be engendered as such,” he adds.

In this three-part series, TNM looks at women and the technology startup space. In the second of this three-part series, we will look at the ‘bro-culture’ of startups that eventually permeates through their value systems and the architecture and design of these workspaces.

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