I remember when we got our first office. It was a pretty amazing feeling, having a team, being funded, moving out of the noisy co-working space and into our own place.
For the first time it felt like we were a real company.
At the previous space there were a bunch of us that frequently played table tennis, so it was a must have for our new office as well. Aside from the fridge, coffee machine and chairs, a new tennis table was one of our first purchases.
At that stage there were 5 or 6 of us (which was most of us) that played regularly and it was seriously great fun, and good exercise as well!
But as the team got bigger I noticed something.
Our team had evolved into distinct groups; “players” and “not-players”. That correlated pretty well with “super active dudes” and “not super active dudes”. As the team grew, I started playing less and less. Partially because I was too busy, but partially because I didn’t want to be that guy off playing table tennis three times a day.
I didn’t give it much thought beyond that until my co-founder left the business.
By that stage one of our early employees had moved on, and the two guys we shared our office with were also in the process of moving to their own space as well. It just so happens that those four people were the most active table tennis players! So all of a sudden we had a table but not nearly as many people playing. The balance had shifted.
It was as if this table was such a core part of our business and then one day it just wasn’t. It was reduced to a thing to put your coffee cup on during stand-ups.
I decided to gift the table to one of the staff to take home, and it was the best thing we ever did. We replaced it with a lunch table, some nice chairs and a collection of board games. Instead of having a team coming together to beat each other at table tennis (and thereby excluding those who didn’t), we had a team sitting down to enjoy a meal or a game of cards together.
The room went from an exclusive space to an inclusive space, and it just felt better.
The trouble with a table tennis table is that it sets a tone that is hard to move away from as your company gets larger. The more people in your team that play, the harder it will be for new staff that don’t play to feel part of that team.
The table then becomes a dividing line between those who do and those who don’t. “Anyone can play though”, is the claim most founders make. It’s true, but young active dudes play far more often and far more competitively. Anyone who isn’t a young active dude is far less likely to enjoy that environment.
Of course, this is not a problem with table tennis, it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem. Simply by being a dude and making your office an ideal space for you, you’re making it an ideal space for people like you. i.e. other dudes.
That’s how you build a mono-culture.
There are plenty of other ways dude founders make their workplace uninviting for any non-dudes. They choose an office with one toilet (in a diverse team it may not be an issue, but if you’re the one woman in a team of 6 dudes… it’s a problem), they buy a big-ass beer fridge stocked full of beer, they get a Sonos and have a “democratically chosen” playlist (i.e. chosen by all the dudes), they have Friday beers (whether you like beer or not) and drink them while they smash plastic balls at each other and talk about who’s going to win the footy on the weekend.
Well… maybe that’s a bit extreme, but you get my point.
Plenty of people that aren’t dudes like many of these things too of course. But put them all together, and it makes a loud statement about who you expect your team to be as you grow.
If you’re female, or old, or can’t run, or simply don’t like beer, soccer or table tennis, you don’t belong in this office. Before those folks even start, they’re already the odd one out. It may not be obvious to you right now, but you’re setting a tone that will forever make it just a little bit easier to hire a dude than a non-dude, and that is a self-perpetuating cycle.
Sure, there may be fewer women in tech than men, but you’re actively advertising that you don’t want them anyway. That’s how we end up with more Daves than women.
There’s plenty of debate around why there aren’t more women in tech generally, and there’s plenty of great women that are in tech that are better equipped to write about that than me. But have a look around your office and ask if you’re doing enough to encourage a diverse workplace? Are you making a welcoming environment for a team, or just a cool place for men?
If you have a table-tennis table, it’s safe to say it’s probably not the only thing ensuring you have a team full of dudes.