Beyond Women’s History Month:
Sexism & Startups
The disparity between expectations of gender equity at work and the reality is stark. Studies show that male VC’s and founders remain unaware of sexism within startups, while their women employees report massive barriers. What makes workplace discrimination so insidious? It’s often perpetrated by well-meaning people who do not recognize the potential harm in their behavior.
To help our Fellows and startup managers feel equipped to promote gender equity in the workplace we are sharing these first-hand accounts and recommendations from some of our Fellows, with 1-3 years of work experience, and Team members, with 3-10 years of work experience. There is no perfect solution, but listening and learning is a good place to start.
“When I was early in my career I was offered a promotion after weeks of being with the organization. A colleague suggested to me that it was because the founder and CEO ‘liked brunettes,’ of which I am one. I stammered and exited the conversation quickly. I doubted whether or not I had earned the promotion on the merits of my work (I had).”
When a coworker says something that you find sexist or denigrating—especially when it’s someone that you have a generally positive relationship with—you can make a point to discuss it with them later. Take some time to gather your thoughts, and then ask them for coffee or to go on a walk. Share with that person that you were upset or frustrated by their comment, and then explain why. In this case, you might say something like, “I was frustrated when you implied that I got a promotion because of my looks. I work hard and perform well, and your comment made me feel like my efforts aren’t valued. That’s a really common thing people say about women, and even if you were just kidding, those type of comments contribute to sexism at work.” It can be painful to receive this kind of feedback, so even when you’re really angry, still try to be gracious. It might seem unfair (and probably is!) but it is an effective strategy for creating small changes while avoiding miserable workplace tension.
“Unlike the men in my office, I am regularly cut off, interrupted, or ignored if I try to speak.”
Attention dynamics around the workplace, but especially in meetings, tend to center men or masculinity. Being supportive of women or femmes in the workplace means redirecting attention when necessary. Sometimes it can mean that someone else is taking credit for a woman’s work, sometimes it means that men are getting more airtime, or sometimes it means that women aren’t getting the appropriate recognition they deserve. While occasionally they’re very clear, a lot of the time these dynamics are really subtle, and it takes consistent practice for men to learn to notice them and then to learn how to make corrections in a way that feels professional but still helpful. For men to be allies to women in the workplace, they need to challenge themselves to first notice those dynamics, and then intervene when it’s appropriate. But while being a good ally can mean making an active intervention, sometimes the best thing you can do is sit back and listen or give someone else the floor.
“In the first few weeks of my first real job out of college, I introduced myself to a male colleague who I knew I would be working with occasionally. After a few minutes of chit chat, he said, ‘So why did you take a job here? Bored of spending your dad’s money at home?’ I was so taken aback that I reverted to my awkward giggle (a sound which only escapes my mouth when I’m in very awkward or inappropriate situations). After finishing my weird giggle, I straightened up and said, ‘actually, my studies in college directly relate to this job and I’m passionate about it.’ My colleague shook his head and accepted my answer without missing a beat. We had a good working relationship following this encounter.”
It can be difficult to fight your body’s involuntary response to uncomfortable situations. More than anything, it’s important not to “giggle away” sexist behavior and offensive remarks. Women don’t need to be genial when they are offended. Being firm and secure in yourself is not the same as being aggressive or unlikeable. Think about how you might respond to an offensive remark and practice how you will stand your ground. If your mind is prepared, your body will be too.
“Reality hit the moment I stepped outside of my workplace to speak at a tech conference. At the networking event, I was asked out to drinks four times. Three of those times, men specified that this was a ‘no talk about work’ outing when all preceding conversations involved only professional discussions about work and the IoT tech industry. Multiple people asked for my business card, and two of the follow-up emails I received were about going out on a date sometime. I had shown up at an industry event, given a talk that I was proud of, and at the end of the day all of those men looked at me and saw an object, not a colleague.”
Know that it’s ok to speak up and let someone know when they’ve crossed a line. If you don’t speak up at the outset, and the offending party gets bolder with what they say or do, it’s never too late to put a stop to it. You’re not at fault for attempting to diffuse with politeness, nor were you “leading them on” by maintaining a level of professional courtesy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
“My new manager was a good person, but he did not listen to me and my coworker because we were female. He called me ‘kiddo’ and ‘young lady.’ He made inappropriate jokes. I struggled because how was I, a 23-year-old woman who had been working at this company for only 6 months, supposed to approach a 40-year-old white male who was brought in to save the company?”
Your manager is likely unaware of how his comments make you feel, so it is important to address the issue head on. Pull him aside and let him know that, while you appreciate the professional relationship you two have, those nicknames make you feel singled out and appear unprofessional to your coworkers. It will be scary to approach someone who is much more senior than you, but it’s important to practice advocating for yourself whenever necessary.
“At a Demo Day at a prestigious Silicon Valley accelerator program, I had countless men comment on my appearance, calling me pretty or cute (uh, thanks?). One man insisted my business card was fake because I was ‘too pretty to be full stack,’ other men asked me technical questions, as if to prove I actually knew what I was doing. One man brought me a flower, introduced himself, asked for my contact information, and just left. One older man approached me and said, ‘I don’t want to hear about what you’re doing, but I would like to dance with you.’ I also met an older male developer from another demoing company who would not leave me alone once he realized I was a developer, even when investors were trying to speak to me. My CMO eventually had to interfere.”
If you are getting harassed or feel uncomfortable around certain coworkers or clients (or anyone in a professional setting), it’s often best to let them know how you feel directly. Still, there may be times where you need to lean on someone you trust. Don’t feel like you have to take on the whole world and act like everything is ok when it’s not! Getting an additional opinion on the situation and asking for advice is a very smart way of trying to right the situation. And if all else fails, and the treatment/harassment continues, bring it up to someone you trust at work (whether HR exists or not) and ask for their help in addressing it.
The biggest piece of advice as far as feeling comfortable in such a space is to befriend any other women working there. Just having a woman who you share your thoughts and feelings about your work environment with makes an enormous difference. Even if she’s not working directly with you, it always helps to have someone who understands your point of view.
Beyond Women’s History Month
Whether you’re a woman or a man in the workforce, it’s likely that at least one of these anecdotes resonated with you. It’s important that we keep sharing our experiences. It’s even more important to reflect on these experiences to help others learn and be prepared to fight discrimination of all kinds in the workplace.
Also, to note – if you identify as a woman, it doesn’t mean you get to say and do anything you please! Keep it professional and remember that maltreatment and harassment can originate from anyone and can be directed at any person, regardless of gender. Think about the type of inclusive workplace you’d like to be a part of and make sure that you are doing what you can to create it. Backhand comments, snide remarks, and jokes made at the expense of coworkers can all create toxic environments, so even if you don’t “mean” to harass someone, you may be doing it without even realizing it.
Do you have a piece of advice you would like to share with the Venture for America community? Drop us a line here.
Special thank you to Hannah White ’16 and Leverege for their contributions.