How to Build a Female-Friendly Culture at Your Startup
A startup CEO reached out to me. He already had a team of around 100 employees and was going to double his company's size in upcoming months. There had been some incidents of inappropriate comments which made female employees uncomfortable. He addressed the situation swiftly and strongly by having a serious conversation with the leader who had made them and following up with an e-mail to the entire company denouncing the behavior. He wanted to make sure that the work environment remains welcoming and respectful to women as the company grows.
I was very happy that he had reached out. It's much easier to configure the right culture from the beginning than to try and fix it later when the company is big and complex (see Uber as a case in point).
We had a long conversation about how to create a meritocratic and productive culture and I made the following recommendations. He had already implemented some and he plans to address others in upcoming months:
1) Hire senior women. This has three benefits:
a) The leadership team sets the tone from the top and having strong women leaders onboard will help creating a more balanced and welcoming culture
b) It sends a signal to more junior women that they can "get there" one day
c) It's good for recruiting purposes because these days women often look at the leadership team composition to figure out if they should even apply for the role
2) Institute hiring targets to make sure that new employees intake is not gender-skewed.
It's much easier to create a gender-balanced company from the beginning than try to catch up later when the company is mostly male (p.s. having all the women in Marketing and all the men in Engineering doesn't count as balanced in my book). I've interviewed various executives across industries over the last few years about what worked and didn't in their companies. Again and again, the theme of setting ambitious hiring targets and following up (especially at entry level) came up. If things are left to inertia, people will end up hiring those who are just like them, i.e. if you have a team that is and has always been mostly male, there's a very little chance that they will end up hiring women without some kind of an intervention. The other thing I often hear from executives is how HR / recruiting agencies filter out the candidate pool to fit an existing profile. Having concrete targets from top management will motivate the hiring managers and recruiters to look beyond their regular networks and increase the diversity of the candidate pool. If you think that they won't be able to find well-qualified women to hire, here's a nice tutorial on how to hire women in tech.
3) Train employees on giving transparent and constructive feedback
If you have a performance review process, it doesn't necessarily mean that performance is objectively judged. Managers are often not skilled at providing feedback and/ or afraid to give negative feedback until it's too late. This subjectivity can disproportionately affect women. Various studies show that women's performance is judged differently from that of men. We also know that women don't progress to top roles at the same pace as men. Performance reviews are important milestones where it's possible to catch and prevent some of the bias. Therefore, to ensure REAL meritocracy, it's important to pay attention to this process as the company grows and hires / promotes many inexperienced employees and managers. As the leader, he should be looking more in detail at the data in performance reviews and comparing across gender lines to ensure that the performance evaluation processes is indeed working to improve performance rather than favor or punish people.
4) Invest in training middle management (related to point 3).
One of the insights that came out from analyzing Uber's toxic culture was that their approach of hiring and promoting young and ultra-ambitious young men resulted in a whole layer of managers who were good at execution but had no experience in managing employees, thinking strategically, and dealing with various workplace issues. This opened the door to inappropriate behaviors and poor judgement on an array of issues. I've seen this happen in other industries and companies where folks were quickly promoted but not given the proper training for leading and motivating teams. HBR's article: Why So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders nicely summarizes some of these issues. With the high pace of work and the shortage of resources at a startup, it's often hard to find time for soft skills training but it can be absolutely crucial for successful growth.
There are many other things one can do but the four above can have the biggest impact for the long term. As always, I would love to hear from you if you or your company tried anything else that worked well.
New: if you'd like to bring this discussion to your company, check out my new Corporate Programs page.