When the media talks about women in tech and in the startup world, the focus is often on the negative. We read about how much progress we still need to make towards gender parity in leadership, and widespread discrimination against female developers. High-profile lawsuits from women like Ellen Pao put a spotlight on an unwelcoming culture that sounds more like a throwback to the 1950s than the industry that is supposed to be leading us into the future.
And it’s true -- there is an awful lot of progress to be made. But, this singular focus on the doom and gloom tends to overlook the fact that a lot of women are thriving within the startup world, and so are the companies they run. Multiple studies have shown that businesses with more female leaders are more successful and profitable than those with more men on their boards; finally, the investment world has started to take notice. Data from the venture capital firm, First Round, notes that their investments in companies with female founders perform 63 percent better than those with all-male teams.
As the world wakes up to the fact that startups and indeed all businesses, do better when women are given the chance to lead, women themselves are realizing that startups are some of the best places to build your career. In fact, more women are founding startups than ever before, with the percentage of funded startups with at least one female founder rising from just 9 percent in 2009 to 18 percent in 2014.
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Across the business world, the glass ceiling remains largely intact, but more cracks may be showing for women at startups than anywhere else. Highly structured management styles and an old boys club mentality are still very much the reality in many sectors, but startups by their nature have the ability to write their own rules, create their own cultures and build management structures in a way that can open up a lane for female leaders.
As a result, the corporate ladder looks very different at most startups than it does at more traditional businesses. Often, there are simply fewer rungs to climb as a business is scaling. That means that many of the blockades women encounter as they ascend towards the top are removed and they have a chance to exhibit their leadership qualities earlier in their careers.
The hyper-speed, collaborative nature of the startup environment means that all hands must be on deck, taking on a variety of roles, often at a moment’s notice. In that sort of working model, smart entrepreneurs know that there is little time to waste on bias, allowing women to make their mark from day one. I found myself in this very position when I first entered the startup world, after having worked in venture capital, where I had a front row seat to the consequences of poor leadership styles. When I started with my first startup company, I quickly realized that in order to get myself in a position of leadership, I needed to do intense ground work on the front lines, analyze everything I was hearing and seeing from customers and potential customers, and apply methodical thinking to the process to eventually land on insights. Once I was able to develop insights and a strong case, I made it my business to share it with senior management without hesitation. My gender was never a factor, and because of the bootstrapped, survival-mode environment I was in, management’s focus was entirely on the validity of the case I made and ignored the distractions of any biases.
The working culture of more established startups also tends to benefit women. While many startups in their initial years demand long hours, as they move into the next phase and need to compete with other startups for top talent, they tend to emphasize benefits that center around work-life balance, like flexible hours, parental leave and wellness perks that are attractive to women, whether or not they plan to have a family. This type of balance isn’t just a boon to women’s advancement – it’s essential to helping startups scale. A healthy lifestyle, even temperament, and broad range of experiences and interests all stem from balance, and they also all contribute to spurring creativity and bringing big ideas to fruition quickly. Fortunately, my current startup, The Big Know, has been particularly supportive of this type of balanced work schedule; it’s paid off in spades for the growth of our business and for my own career development.
As investors and the business world at large make the connection between female leadership and the bottom line, I think we’re going to see a historic shift in how and by whom businesses are run, starting with the startup and tech worlds. Women have the opportunity to shape an emerging industry in a way that gives them a real stake and an important voice, and that’s exactly what they are doing. Startups are a great place for women to work today, and the future is even brighter.