An article got posted on Thought Catalog recently, called “Date a Girl In Startups”, by Pippa Biddle of BrightCo. It’s a lighthearted list detailing all of the reasons why you should consider taking a girl out on a date, if she works for a startup. There’s a lot of these lists all over the internet lately, such as “8 Reasons Why the Lion King Was the Best Movie Ever” and “10 Nostalgic Foods You Might Remember” and “5 Lists You Can’t Believe We Made a List About”. You know the type.
I’m not going to criticize them — I’m not going to lie. I read them every time. I don’t love the proliferation of them, but I think they’re a fun read. I usually end up laughing a bit by the end of the list, because of how over the top they are.
The problem for me is, this time I didn’t find it very funny. I take issue with the fact that this is seemingly targeted at men, telling them to consider dating a girl who works for a startup. Out of all the lists on Thought Catalog, many career-oriented, the one that’s posted about women in startups specifically is dating advice.
I’ve worked with startups, I’ve worked for companies that deal with startups, my very first job out of college was with an atypical sort of startup that worked with construction, and that led into consulting for — you guessed it — more startups. And I mean, I live in Detroit. It’s kind of a common trend here, especially if you’re a 20-something designer. My friends and boyfriend design for startups, other friends are employees of startups, just as many friends have their own startup or pop up shop, or work for people that fund startups.
We do have a problem with women in startups. But it’s not what Pippa says it is here — it’s more related to the comment she makes in the first paragraph, about how her (female) friends have unhealthy relationships due to attempting to assuage men’s fears of women’s incompetency.
“Very few young women in startups are in healthy relationships, but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive for them or thrive in them. For some reason, we have a hard time starting and building romantic relationships. I haven’t been able to work out the exact formula for why we have so much trouble but I am certain that it has a fair amount to do with men’s fears about who we are and what we do.”
We have a problem, in that this is exactly what people think of, when they think of women in startups — dating them, or referring to them as ‘girls’, or assuming they’re ‘not a good fit’ because they’re ‘girls’ and might have ‘distracting relationships’ — instead of hiring them.
All of the points listed in the article, as evidence of how dateable the women interviewed are, are reasons that you should hire women for startups. If you haven’t yet read it, they include risk-taking, confidence in her abilities, passion, good communication, etc. They’re amazing qualities for a potential employee, especially one that might be involved in a fast-paced, risk-intensive area of business. Many of the women I’ve met who are searching for jobs at, or are working for startups in my area or in the Bay Area have these qualities. Yet, it often takes them much longer to find a job at a startup, compared to similarly or less qualified men, and I’ve heard several reports of women leaving jobs because of inappropriate comments or behavior directed at them.
So why aren’t more startups, particularly tech startups, trying harder to hire a more diverse workforce, and retain their employees for long periods of time?
The answer is startup culture. The same environment that creates close-knit groups of employees, “failing fast”, and a strong drive to succeed also fosters a culture where the slightest possibility of social conflict terrifies founders.
Therefore, most of the teams tend to hire employees who are exactly like their cofounders, assuming, like a lot of people do in their personal lives — this will help them get along better, and therefore make the venture more likely to run smoothly. After all, conventional startup wisdom tells you that the more you get along, the more you’ll have a strong team who’ll have each others’ backs and understand each other.
The problem with this is, at least around here, the startup teams are now nearly universally white and male. They’re outgoing, optimistic, and play a whole lot of ping pong, to the point where there’s now been several instances of inter-office ping pong Olympics. (We have a ping pong social club. Yes, seriously.) And in an entire building block in Detroit dedicated to startups occupied by several hundred people, there’s under 10 POC, and maybe under twenty women. There’s rarely an HR department to report any issues to— if there is, it’s one or two employees.
By perpetuating this style of hiring, you’re creating a team of yes-men who think similarly to you. They may have your good qualities, but they also might have all the same faults and blindsides, as well as cultural biases. You might not be able to, say, notice if a product is actually marketable to more than a very small portion of the population. Or maybe your idea isn’t realistically priced. It might be too expensive for most people, or they might not want to set aside more than ten dollars for a web-based service. Great social media interactions and flashy marketing won’t save an idea that nobody’s interested in.
The other problem with this is that long hours and modest-to-low pay, which are often used as traits of people who are passionate and involved in their work, exclude people who value interpersonal relationships, or have a family life. If you’re looking to hire within your company culture, and your idea of company culture is “young white guy with no social life who lives for work and only that”, that means you might feel like choosing someone who varies from this threatens your “culture”. However, if you hired someone who has a well balanced personal life and interacts with a wide variety of people, rather than someone who has purely technical skills and ability to speak startup jargon, would mean that your new employee can bring a realistic perspective and ideas about how to better grow your company.
So many startups say that they want to change the world. Cofounders, designers: if you really want to change the world, you shouldn’t focus on creating the next Google, Facebook, or whatever. You should think about how to solve social problems and benefit people in your community, and having diversity in your company can help you figure out how to make some lasting change.
So hire women for your startup. You’ll be glad you did.