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Do startups really nurture women leaders?

27 March, 2017

A senior colleague once asked me, “Why do women always steer discussions towards equality? If women want to take up leadership positions, they should earn it.” The statement he made seemed extremely fair and it steered the gender arguments towards a level-playing ground. On the flip side, this question had an undercurrent that made me restless. It steered me to ask why at so many different levels. If it truly is a game of merit, then why are there so few women in the boardrooms? Why are so many women dropping off the workforce? What steers them to take so many breaks in their careers? Why is this more prevalent in a woman’s career profile and not in a male candidate’s profile?

Startups are a competitive place and most of all very demanding: the late working hours, extremely tight deadlines and an ecosystem that is always off-balance. But these are what make it exciting. At my most recent place of work, women comprised the majority in my team and I am so proud of it. It was never by design or a bias for the gender but happened out of sheer merit and ambition. Everyone was always ready to work late. If for some reason they couldn’t be physically present, they would work remotely (sometimes when they were on vacation), join calls on Hangouts, and be available on email and WhatsApp, all to make sure work never suffers. In spite of this dedication and ruthless aggression, why do women still lag behind or more accurately, drop off later in their careers?

Tina Datta Nayak

On the other hand, there are working mothers like me. The WhatsApp mom’s group of my fourth grader is constantly bleeping with messages from guilty moms—who fight to balance their business trips and assignments back home—asking for favours from a fellow mom or a family member. There’s always a sense of belonging, a feeling of ‘leaning in’ and reaching out when there’s a need. It’s a community of supporters, which is key to consciously create an inclusive environment that pushes women forward and enables them to look after each other.

What can startups learn from these scenarios?
Despite making so much progress, why are we lagging so far behind? We often hear of founders who want to adapt the culture of global startup heroes back home. Sadly, it’s only lip service. My observations over the years have only convinced me that the startup system lacks support despite the efforts of a few good souls. Culture is a powerful concept that is rarely understood in its true sense. It encompasses a lot, but if I just pick a single tiny slice, such as creating a thriving environment for women, we are yet to start doing something about it.

I asked a few startups, friends, former colleagues, and women’s groups on digital forums the common experiences that women face in the startup community. Everyone had their stories. Below are the most prominent patterns:

The trade-off between career and family
It’s almost always assumed that women will give up careers/take-a-break when they get married, are having a baby or when their husbands move to another city or country. Our minds are so conditioned by these societal decision-making patterns that we start making assumptions even before a woman decides what choice to make. Our male counterparts, on the contrary, will not be expected to make such decisions.

Inclusiveness shrinks as you head to the top
All the women I spoke to over the years and the past few weeks unanimously agreed that the boys club is something you just can’t overlook. The after-office hours of strategy and discussions over drinks involve so many innuendoes that you just can’t miss. You see, we all carry baggage. It isn’t the fault of a particular gender. When you have more men in seniority positions, the minority will take a back seat even though it isn’t intentional.

The solution is to be more cognizant and bring about a more inclusive work culture with statements like, “Hey we discussed xyz last night while you were away. What’s your take on this? Do you think we should move forward?”

That brings me to…

Making diversity count
The number of women in boardrooms is negligible and it’s a shame. It isn’t about merit or performance but about how startups today are building an environment of ‘inclusiveness’ to drive decisions. A professor from the Harvard Business School Boris Groysberg spoke about gender diversity so aptly, “There is a big difference between diversity and inclusiveness,” he says. “Diversity is about counting the numbers; inclusiveness is about making the numbers count. Whether it’s about individuals or companies or countries, the conversation has to shift from talking about whether diversity affects performance to talking about the conditions under which you’d expect diversity to have a positive effect on performance.”

Conclusion
I haven’t read anything more powerful than Groysberg’s statement. Having worked in different kinds of workplaces, ranging from multinationals to startups, emerging companies in India have a long way to go in creating an environment that fosters women’s leadership in the ecosystem. I truly believe that when you hire more women in leadership positions, they will not only drive higher productivity but also create a more thriving environment for other women. However, just hiring women doesn’t cut it. We have to create and nurture an environment of support without any bias. Eliminating gender bias isn’t about giving one gender more opportunities over the other. It’s about making the workplace a level-playing field, one where an opinion in the workplace is equally heard, no matter which gender it comes from.

Tina Datta Nayak is a growth marketing consultant with over 13 years of experience across online, offline and mobile platforms. Most recently, she led the growth marketing strategy at furniture rental startup Rentomojo.com.

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Do startups really nurture women leaders?

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