The boys’ clubs and ‘brogrammer’ cultures are alive & well in Seattle… but we don’t want to talk about it
(And Other Insights From A Survey of Seattle Start-ups)
This fall, a team including Martha Burwell, an independent consultant, Ruchika Tulshyan, and Artemis Connection, a consultancy focused on aligning strategy and team, were pondering a few important facts:
- Most Seattle startups are very focused on the data—they rely heavily on data to drive product decisions. Seattle is home to Amazon and Microsoft, which have leveraged data to succeed in everything from retail, to cloud computing, software development and artificial intelligence. But it’s also home to non-technology companies like Starbucks, that are operating like technology companies and utilizing data to make their core business decisions.
- Visionary technology companies like Apple, Facebook, Uber and Google are establishing outposts in the Pacific Northwest (PNW)
- Talent from Silicon Valley is migrating to the PNW because we have these innovative tech companies and a quality of life/cost of living that’s better than Silicon Valley
- The PNW has consistently been criticized for not talking about social issues like race—and Silicon Valley companies have begun sharing diversity statistics with their communities, but few Seattle companies have followed suit
To understand what these facts meant for our startups culture, we surveyed more than 315+ employees at start-ups (defined as companies with fewer than 250 employees) in the Seattle area about their experience.
The solution to diversity in Seattle start-ups? Think as intentionally about your employees as you do your product.
What surprised us most about the results was the general acknowledgement that something in the system was broken—but not at my company. Very few employees surveyed reported a serious commitment to improving the inclusivity & diversity at their company. A few more of our findings:
- It’s still hard for us to talk about race
- While a full one-third of men think women are treated unfairly in the workplace in general, just 10% of respondents agree that women are treated unfairly in their workplace
- There aren’t enough women and racial minorities getting opportunities
- Bill Grossman, a start-up guru who has lived in both Silicon Valley and Seattle spoke about the two, saying, “Don’t think that Silicon Valley has better entrepreneurs. They don’t. But they have more people trying. They have more crappy companies and mediocre entrepreneurs, but also they have more great companies and people too.”
- It is a numbers game and Seattle doesn’t just have fewer start-ups, like most cities it also has fewer female entrepreneurs and fewer underrepresented minorities starting companies. There are a few Seattle start-ups with women or minorities prominently featured in the C-Suite, but these companies have typically featured women and minorities since the very early years of the company.
- Parents are perceived to be higher risk start-up employees, and women are likely to be busier with families and less able to dedicate themselves fully to the job
- Startups in Seattle are viewed as a meritocracy yet people believe men have more opportunities to succeed.
- Women are often the primary caregiver to children and having children is perceived to have an impact on their ability to fully participate
- While in principle there are company policies in place to address parental needs, many are still concerned that in a fast-paced business environment, it causes one to be out of the loop and potentially miss out on key opportunities.
What can you do?
Collect some data: There was wide variation We recommend every company perform a brief survey about gender diversity in their workplace, and gather side-by-side responses from men and women. Laying bare the facts about how men, women and different races perceive diversity issues in their own workplace is the first step in helping everyone recognize the potential depth of the perception gap. What gets measured gets managed.
Be Transparent: Share the data internally. Share goals. Make them part of board documents. Ask your board and investors to ask you about how you’re doing on diversity goals. But be careful to set goals that are ambitious and give you the time to make real change. In January of this year, Twitter announced with great fanfare that it had reached its diversity goals. But when you dig into the numbers, you see that Twitter’s 2016 increases in female and minority staffing were relatively modest. While the team has 30% women leaders, the technical team remains just 15% female. Similarly, companies such as Apple and Microsoft may look diverse overall… but this diversity is primarily coming from retail positions, not in historically homogeneous technical divisions.
Set some goals: It’s enough for executives to commit to building a diverse, inclusive workplace is not enough—you have to have some measureable goals. It’s important to reward managers for creating an environment where diverse talent can thrive. How managers manage truly matters. Research out of Stanford highlights that when people are assigned to better bosses, they are much less likely to leave the company. The first year as a manager is key for developing skills and habits. Often, managers are judged solely on financial performance—but structured training and clear expectations for leadership quotient should be an essential element of every company. Manager training should be tied to improved skills and competencies. Not at all sexy but necessary.
Try, learn, iterate and share results: At an organization level, companies should continue to experiment with different approaches, or at least dialogues, to pinpoint their company’s unique gender-related strengths and challenges.
Think long term: Focus on expanding the pie in Seattle. There is enough opportunity for those focused on diversity to help each other, build relationships, and give real time/effort, without feeling like everything has to be transactional. It makes sense to invest in activities that pay off in years or decades, not months. Anyone that has tried to assemble a diverse applicant pool knows that it’s not a zero sum game
For more resources, consult the full report.