I’m a professional. I’m also a woman; and much like my male counterparts, my personal values weigh heavily on my professional decisions. As a former big law attorney, I was indoctrinated into the lawyering business through the firm — the quintessential boys club. Sure, there were female partners and yes, over half of law school graduates are now female, but that does not change the origins and deeply-rooted culture of a historically white, male industry.
Illustrations by Rhea Jayachandran
As of 2015, women constituted more than a third of the profession, but only about a fifth of law firm partners, general counsels of Fortune 500 corporations and law school deans. The situation is bleakest at the highest levels. Women account for only 17 percent of equity partners, and only seven of the nation’s 100 largest firms have a woman as chairman or managing partner.
Sadly, this isn’t surprising in law, but according to the World Economic Forum, there is no country on Earth where women make as much as men for the same work. In their 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, it is estimated that at current rates, it would take another 170 years to close the global pay gap between men and women.
I recently joined the team at ROSS Intelligence, a legal tech startup utilizing Artificial Intelligence to impact legal innovation with a mission to democratize access to justice. The founding team, comprised of 3 men who met at the University of Toronto, have distinct cultural backgrounds, which caught my attention. Their diverse ethnicities bring forward unique perspectives and personal motivations that influence the team’s values. As an early female hire, I’m excited to contribute to the company’s culture shaping what success will look like — for both my career and the company.
Life at an early stage startup is a hustle. Focusing attention on cultivating an inclusive workplace is not of paramount consideration for most founders. Time and resources are stretched thin; finding the right early employees to join their team typically comes from within existing networks. Based on the current statistics, an enormous threat to gender equality still exists. With females making up such a tiny portion of the tech and startup sectors, we risk building a new economy that leaves women behind, again.
This new wave of millennial CEOs has been charged with disrupting longstanding industries through technological innovations. That being the case, one may expect a company’s culture to reflect a more progressive — if not radical — set of values.
SO WHY IS IT SMART FOR FOUNDERS TO CARE ABOUT INCLUSION?
Surveys and studies demonstrate the intrinsic value of diversity within the workplace. There is a direct correlation between greater inclusivity and long term success — notably measurable improvements in office morale and business health. Writing about their study at the Petersen Institute for International Economics on how firms with more women in the c-suite are more profitable, the authors pointed out:
…there are at least two channels through which more female senior leaders could contribute to superior firm performance: increased skill diversity within top management, which increases effectiveness in monitoring staff performance, and less gender discrimination throughout the management ranks, which helps to recruit, promote, and retain talent.
Evidence consistently shows companies led by women and embracing diversity in leadership achieve better results in terms of innovation and creativity, and quite simply, better bottom lines, which may be the only motivation a founder needs.
SO HOW CAN FOUNDERS CULTIVATE A CULTURE THAT MATTERS?
Across the business world, the glass ceiling remains largely intact, but startups by their nature have the ability to write their own rules, create their own cultures, and build management structures in a way that can open up a lane for female leaders.
Within this framework, how do we push the needle for greater inclusivity in the workplace? I posed the question to a group of 5000+ members of Tech Ladies, a rapidly growing community founded by Allison Esposito, and did some additional research — turns out this issue is being widely addressed. Here are some of the helpful suggestions and resources I discovered.
Project Include: Ellen K. Pao was among the founders of this open community working toward providing meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for early to mid-stage tech companies, focusing on CEOs and management. Check out the recommendations section for useful resources, including instructions on how to define and implement culture, including:
"Startups committed to inclusivity will attract and retain talent by positioning themselves as industry leaders. Before you can successfully develop an inclusive culture, you need to define what it looks like for your company and set clear goals to measure your progress."
Jessi Hempel’s recent article “How Meetup Ditched Its Boys Club” revealed how Scott Heiferman, cofounder and CEO of Meetup, sought to create a more diversely run company, including the following useful insight:
"Filling an important position by focusing on skills rather than title isn’t rocket science. I called Stanford’s Caroline Simard, who is Senior Director of Research at The Clayman Institute on Gender Research, to ask her about this, and she said that one of the best ways to add women to the senior ranks at companies is to promote them from within. Often, she said, we don’t. You have to ask, ‘Who do we take a chance on?’ she said. 'One way bias creeps in is that we hold women to a higher standard.' We assume men will succeed at a job, even if their background suggests they need to learn some of the tasks, whereas we are concerned women may not succeed unless they’ve done the job before."
Allison Gage, COO & CFO of The Big Know, talked about the importance of establishing a culture supporting a balanced work schedule.
"While many startups in their initial years demand long hours, as they move into the next phase and need to compete with other startups for top talent, they tend to emphasize benefits that center around work-life balance, like flexible hours, parental leave and wellness perks that are attractive to women, whether or not they plan to have a family. This type of balance isn’t just a boon to women’s advancement — it’s essential to helping startups scale."
Louise Pentland, PayPal’s General Counsel, described what culture means to her.
"It’s very rare that you’re able to come into a public company like this, basically at its beginning, and be able to help shape the culture of a company…As a lawyer, being in an innovation environment where you’re often ahead of the law, it’s really fun…And the values of what we want to create as a company, as this Silicon Valley-headquartered company where we are advocating for diversity and inclusion, not just in what we create — in our products — but in our workforce. And in the ability to be able to influence — as a working mother — initiatives, not just with my legal hat on, but across the company. That was embraced immediately as part of something that I could get involved in, and something that I’m deeply passionate about. That translates to things like law firm selection. One of the things that I am — and I’ve told this to my entire organization — that I am red hot on, is using firms that match our values of diversity and inclusion. That’s across the board"
Paresh Patel, founder of PayRange, a Portland-based startup, shared his tips on how they cultivate an inclusive culture in a company where 74 percent of its employee base is comprised of women and/or ethnic minorities. Just as the hiring process is fraught with pitfalls for employers seeking to cultivate an inclusive culture, meetings can also be problematic. He said:
"We recognize not all employees are vocal and some employees with great ideas may not speak up in meeting. That’s okay as we allow people to write their arguments as well, recognizing inherent cultural and personal differences. We weigh the arguments equally on the merits regardless if they are shared in a big meeting, delivered individually, or submitted in written form to the team."
Jessica Lawrence, E.D. of NY Tech Meetup, the world’s largest meetup group and non-profit working to build a sustainable and diverse technology industry in New York, had this to say in her HBR article about culture:
"It all starts with the hiring process...When a startup is not thoughtful from the very beginning about the type of company they want to build, what type of people they want to attract, and how they want to treat their employees, they risk falling prey to the subtle (and not so subtle) pattern matching, and copycat policies and behaviors that keep the industry homogenous."
It is clear there is definite progress to be had in terms of cultivating greater inclusivity in the workplace. The silver lining, however, should be clearer — ushering women in through early stage hiring and/or up the ranks is just smart business. Founders are uniquely positioned to create a culture that reinforces diversity but it is imperative we continue to push the envelope.
To do this successfully we all must play a role, here’s how:
As a Woman in Tech, join a community or group supporting individual empowerment and collective efforts for achieving equality in the workplace. Tech Ladies or NY Tech Meetup, are among the dozens of existing forums available for new members.
As a Founder, demonstrate inclusion from an early stage, beginning with hiring and promotions. You risk losing significant talent (and ROI) if you are not demonstrating diversity at all levels, particularly at the top.
As a Manager or HR, creating a safe space for employee input and feedback is key. Having an open dialogue with your team as to how certain policies are practiced and whether the culture is a fit, is critical for influencing greater internal inclusion.
As a co-worker, men and women alike, as colleagues, have a joint responsibility to support one another in an effort to build a collaborative work environment, not a competitive one. Take credit, where credit’s due but don’t forget to give it as well. Similarly, talking candidly around the water cooler is even more common within these open concept, shared spaces — take note of your audience and the subtle (and not so subtle) implications of your topics of conversation and language used. Caution: they often do not fall on deaf ears.
I hope this overview was useful. I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts, suggestions or reactions. Find me on -Twitter. Thanks to Rhea Jayachandran for adding these incredible illustrations.