Misogyny in the Start-Up Tech Space
Having worked for several large technology companies for the better part of a decade, I’d heard plenty of horror stories. And yet, my personal #metoo experiences had all taken place prior when I was still working in Washington for DC think tanks (a story for another day). The tech world was a welcome reprieve from the boozy come-on’s, the lascivious stares, and colorless jokes about women’s place in the kitchen told shamelessly across a board room table. Private sector, on the other hand, seemed exclusively interested in the bottom line regardless of who or what was getting there, short skirts or high heels be damned.
Then I worked for a start-up.
Of course not all start-ups are made equal and not even all tech start-ups are made equal. However, I do believe that there are certain characteristics to this specific type of working environment that can lead many companies astray if they aren’t mindful to avoid a particular mindset among their leadership and staff.
During the interview my future boss wanted to know if I was “one of those women” who would fall in love with a guy in the new country they were relocating me, break up with him, and want to go home. I avoided the racial (this imaginary man I would fall in love with would be a local apparently) and sexist connotations by answering the question about my other experiences working abroad and my intentions to stay in the region for some time, pausing to add that my personal life does not tend to interfere with my work life as a rule.
When I arrived on my first day, I noticed that the only offices available were for senior male managers. The female heads of departments (none, of course, graced with the coveted C-level title of their male counterparts) sat at desks perched in front of these offices. It was like landing on a Mad Men set. I reminded myself I was there for a singular purpose— two years to learn the market and go back to the professional embrace of the corporate world.
Sadly, most of the negative experiences I directly encountered at this company came from the actions and comments of women. And not to be paternalistic or excuse their behavior, but a scarcity mindset in a toxic environment typically leads the resource-constrained to turn on each other. My boss knew what it took for her to get ahead would be to distinguish herself as “different” from other women— already considered inferior in this context.
The day came when one of my direct reports sexually harassed me (unsurprising in an environment where senior management already assumed we women can’t help but lose our heads at the slightest whiff of testosterone). I tried to handle it as well as I could… telling him that for reasons that are too obvious to state, our relationship would remain strictly professional . He persisted it and I reported it to my manager.
“Don’t bruise his ego. We need him to do his job.”
Her response was to criticize my “overly friendly” and “warm” approach to management and chided me not to hurt his ego. His performance (directly tied to his sexual prowess, apparently, and not related to his ability to sell or bring in revenue for the company) was immediately declared more important than the emotional stress of being sexually propositioned while trying to do your job.
Diversity is all the rage in the tech space these days. Programs to get women into STEM, company senior leadership positions, etc abound, but if the company culture encourages outdated notions and a Founder or CEO’s personal feelings toward gender are from the 1800s then what is the point?
I’ve worked with many tech start-ups since having left that company. I now consult for these companies and I am privileged to now have the ability to leave a bad situation without it impacting my work permit status or leaving me completely devoid of an income. And though it doesn’t impact me quite as much as before, it would be a mistake to stay quiet. It’s time for us to do better and for women in tech and in the start-up space to demand better of our male and female colleagues.