Tech startups are known for their fun perks and welcoming environments--unless you're a female jonesing to code. Christina Nguyen calls for an end to this culture of microaggressions.
In response to Claire's post stating there is a lack of sexist brogrammers in tech field, I wanted to expand on the sexism there is in the tech world. Brogrammers are far more overt, but the enemy of females in tech startups lies in the subtle microaggressions-- especially in conjunction with startups, where entrepredouches run rampant. I have been quite fortunate (or perhaps unconsciously selecting) to work and learn in environments that have gender parity. Riparian Data has been an excellent place to work, and gender has never been the basis of any unencouraging comments or action. That said, myself and a number of my friends have had various problems with other individuals in tech, or even an institutional culture that isn't welcoming to women (having a culture in discussing gender issues is key). The rest of this article examines these examples. We should strive to do more, and not be complacent with the work that has already been made.
Let's get started with the tech startup environment in general. Because technology cred is mostly merit-based, it seems less antagonistic and uses many womens’ collaborative nature in the workplace. Whether or not women learned to prefer collaborating and systemic thinking, women tend to be more comfortable in these sort of environments. Sure there are a good number of females in marketing, business development, sales, and the less tech-orientated dimensions of startups, from my visiting of startups in the San Francisco area. All these assertions (generally merit-based, collaborative environment and have a number of females in non-tech fields) does not mean it is an equal playing field.
The fact is few startups are founded by women and few have women in top tech executive positions (though apparently women make up 9% instead of a mere 3.5% of the Forbes 1000, so I guess, yay?). So, let's just say there are few role models. The female founders that are coming out of the woodwork today are mostly in consumer fields like fashion, education, and media. We might be unconsciously sending a message that women can only succeed in these verticals.
There also are insidious beliefs that women are less competent, have less risk tolerance, that we will bear the brunt of raising a family, and these can't work in concert with starting a successful startup -- despite the fact that women are just as competent and women executives don’t leave the workforce more than men. Male founders will have to figure out the balance of families anyway, so why do women founders need to field these questions regarding family? The Kauffman Foundation study of 549 founders of successful businesses (that were peer-identified) showed that nearly 60% had at least one child and were, on average, 40 years-old. We cannot discriminate on gender as to how family roles and plans play out. Reshaping societal expectations is going to be hard, but it will be worth doing.
So what's wrong with having women staying in the "softer" fields of a tech startup? From my observations, engineers assert superiority over other fields, and can be antagonistic towards women. The current trend is to start companies with founders with technical backgrounds, and it could be difficult to find cofounders or hires without one. There may also be an awful belief that these fields are lesser because women are in these fields (pay goes down when more females enter, and men then may leave thus perpetuating the spiral). In a softer vein, I watched female colleagues go into “softer” departments, with bystanders believing "she wasn't good enough to be a developer." There's almost a necessity to assert that one was good enough to be a developer, interviewed, got the position, and then chose to go into that “softer” department. Otherwise one’s worth is being the diversity hire and fulfilling "lesser" functions of a startup. Which is, frankly, stupid.
These functions are just as important and require a skill set and finesse that engineers might have a difficult time with. Some engineers naively believe they could do marketing or sales if they just put their minds to it. The danger is when they believe the opposite doesn't hold true, and further illustrates this wrongheaded feeling of superiority. Since women are situated primarily in these "softer" fields, the association between gender and competency begins. We can do more to strike down the preconceptions of these fields as binary male and female, which causes an us-vs-them mentality and creation of imaginary superiority.
How about women in engineering? If we are able to foster a diverse environment during the formative years and engineering education, perhaps we are able to also affect tech startup culture. Growing up, I have had a few people comment that I would never make it in engineering because I was a girl (despite the data that shows there is no difference in boys and girls’ aptitude for math), and that I should just go study humanities or "softer sciences." I couldn't wrap my head around people who knew me but decisively judged me as a whole gender. In fact, this perhaps incensed me further to prove them wrong. We've created lots of positive programs and changes around and since the time of my growing up, and the growing number of role models will help.
Having male privilege in engineering means that you don't have to defend why and how you're in an engineering program because your gender (despite the fact that most women in engineering are self-selecting, high-achieving individuals). As a male, your male colleagues treat you like a person: you don’t represent some idea of your entire gender; no one is condescending and defending you because of your gender; you are not consumed by trying to navigate boys trying to get into your pants and avoiding slut shaming. These are all less overt things that we now need to deal with and I'm so thankful for the strides that were made before me. There may be huger problems in other industries, but we're still not a place in engineering where gender isn't a striation that determines opportunity. The perception of engineering is discordant with women's gender identity. I believe that we need to foster persistence by helping women create support networks and allow for time to build confidence in their fit with engineering. We can also encourage girls to tinker at an earlier age (and stop with the binary gender!). Again, we’re still not there yet, and have a ways to go in improving cultures of engineering programs and workplace climates (a sample of 20% females with engineering degrees to 11% in the workplace is abysmal).
Where do we go from here? I'm not advocating for having gender quotas or the like for engineering. Acknowledge your privilege, modify the subtle cues, and talk about it. Women, we can’t dismiss our colleagues who want to focus on family. For now, we play into the current culture until we are able to change it. And that comes with taking risks: start our own companies where we can create great atmospheres or just speaking out on your own experiences. I've just seen my female colleagues jump ship because they were being uncomfortably hit on. Some are not given enough power and responsibility to make a difference despite their competency to do so. Some feel forced to play male or female stereotypes depending on circumstance. And perhaps it's also the startup culture to feel we're so interconnected that we feel like we can't call people out on the subtle stuff. Because we don’t want to be cast as the girl fixated on the gender stuff, or making it a big deal about gender, or whining about it. But I think all we want is to be treated like equal human beings-- as citizens-- not a different class, not a representation of our entire gender.
On another note (though somewhat outside the scope of this long post)-- we also need to talk about gender as a spectrum and gender as an identity-- and to make sure transgendered people aren't also marginalized. And if we have to, explain to others that equality of opportunity for all demographics is necessary for society to progress. Without the perspectives of markedly different experiences (that tend to be formed by societal constructs of being brought up as a female/transgender/racial minority/disabled person/citizen of a developing country/etc), not only do we miss out on empathy and understanding of different verticals and markets, we lose out on utilizing the full potential of humanity. And for engineers who hate non-optimal solutions, doesn't that just hurt your soul?