Were you treated badly during an interview at a startup? 2 easy things women can do to bring awareness to tech and its pervasive, parlous culture.
I walked into the open workspace looking around for signs of life. Suddenly a medium-sized dog came out of nowhere and nearly attacked me. A woman wearing a Patagonia vest jumped out of her seat and apologized, saying he had just lost a tooth and to be calm as he was still teething. It was the first time in my life I had heard the word “teething” in a sentence without a human as its subject. The dog jumped on my pencil skirt, making a small tear in my tights. The woman offered me an instant K-cup coffee in a horrific styrofoam cup as armistice, but it was a poor, disappointing effort, and an even worse blow to the environment.
She walked me to an empty rectangular room made of glass, the cold air pumping ferociously from the ventilation system, at a long table too large for its space with chairs too short for its height. A white board hung on the room’s only true wall with mismatched markers that had all but dried out.
A sleepy-looking male walked in, and the first thing he said after his first name was that he hadn’t looked at my resume at all. He proudly declared that he had been with the company when it had only existed in the founder’s apartment. Then he asked me to map out some webpages and process maps on the whiteboard as he posited questions about problems the company had faced. I answered them correctly. The product manager confirmed that every solution I had suggested had turned out to be the way it had actually been adopted in reality. At the end of the hour he told me their startup had a “transparent” work environment- all emails, salaries, and equity were shared openly among three dozen employees.
Next, one of the cofounders walked in, wearing a hoodie and baggy jeans. His cheeks were puffed out, and he was chomping loudly on dry cereal when the door slammed behind him and he muttered his name without a handshake. He didn’t look happy to be conducting an interview. He jumped right into to scribbling illegible phrases on the white board, and with his back to me, uttered some niceties to fill the void. He avoided eye contact, his face bleary and demeanor harrowed.
When I began to ask clarifying questions with respect to his scribbling, he appeared not only frustrated but, increasingly, angry. The question he posed to me centered around finding solutions for billing issues. I couldn’t understand why it was such a large problem, if his company only acted as an intermediary. Frankly, I didn’t understand their pricing model. My cascade of questions continued to irk him. He got so frustrated at one point he stood up out of his seat, frantically erasing everything on the board, and wrote a shorthand equation instead. At this point he was nearly shouting.
I found his writing even more difficult to follow and his communication style condescending, but I felt that if I hadn’t said “got it” with conviction, he may have thrown a chair at me. About twenty more painful minutes ensued, my questions followed by even more frustrated retorts. I thought he would never calm down. Maybe he wanted more cereal, I thought, though it was almost noon. He finally ended our time early, walked out for a few minutes, and when he returned, all he could say was “Cooooool.” There was nothing even close to cool about our interaction. He was insincere, and seemed to fill the privileged male stereotype impeccably. It was obvious he had written me off within the first thirty seconds of meeting me.
When I thanked him, he stood by and watched me leave the open office, with so much hovering anticipation it seemed he couldn’t wait for me to get out the door. I was insulted, discouraged, crestfallen, but mostly enraged. How was an entire city rewarding so many young men for behaving so badly?
My experience was really another example of what has been classified so well in Elephant in the Valley, Uncanny Valley, and Why is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women? However, this time, I decided to provide feedback directly to the startup. So often, we leave interactions like these feeling small and powerless. But bringing this feedback to the forefront of companies not only helps them improve, but has immense potential to improve the experience for another candidate. My effort was wildly successful, and I wanted to share a few things women can do to call awareness to inequity while they are interviewing.
1. When you do land an onsite interview, do not leave before asking questions about women.
Don’t just ask how many women are employed at the startup, but also ask about their roles in the interview process itself. If you didn’t have a chance to be interviewed by a woman, why? Is there a panel that reviews interview notes afterwards, and if so, does this group include women? How do women function in the workplace? What types of roles do women have? Are any female leaders actively involved in decision-making? Is there a people team, and are there women on it? If these questions are answered honestly, it will give you a sense of whether you truly want to work there. And the more frequently these questions are brought to the forefront of founders’ minds, the sooner they will see that these are critical components in attracting talent.
2. After the interview is over, ask if it is alright to set up a 15 minute call to provide feedback.
Always ask first. You can consider providing feedback directly to the individuals who interviewed you, or in my case, to another member of the company or someone from the recruiting team. The latter has advantages because that person can act as a neutral party. Lead by example, and provide constructive information. No name calling and leave emotions out of it. Remember, even if you did leave feeling utterly insulted, it isn’t personal, and was even more likely to be completely unintentional. Most cofounders are first-time founders, most interviewers are first-time interviewers, and most startups learn by making mistakes and trying a lot of things they have never done before, including hiring. The recruiter I spoke to was not only open minded and receptive, but she also apologized to me, openly discussed experiences she had, and by the end of our chat, became my professional ally.
There are a host of resources recruiting teams must invest in, such as assessments that test a combination of skills, in a combination of ways, rather than simply standing up in front of a blank whiteboard. Having candidates pair up and spend a day working together, presenting a past project, or responding to standardized interview test questions are some examples.
Like providing feedback and educating companies about developing high EQ, consulting firms and training sessions on unconscious bias are also critical to introducing changes in culture. However, awareness needs to start at junctures even more upstream. Tad Friend’s profile, Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny, featured in The New Yorker magazine, is evidence that the majority of the tone is set via early stage accelerators and investing firms. It’s time these players institute rigorous resources dedicated specifically to anti-bias, standardized interview training with scoring and rubrics, and how to use tools such as Textio and GapJumpers when sourcing candidates. This material needs to be aimed at all co-founders, but especially new ones, during their fellowship programs. Finally, I challenge founders to consider exercising empathy not only for their customers, but for their candidates too.
Do you identify as a woman? Have you had a positive or negative interview at a startup you’d like to share? Tell me about it! I’m conducting interviews to write a story on women in tech.