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Diversity in Startups: Why the inclusion of women should be a Day One priority

Frida Polli, Founder & CEO of Pymetrics; Julie Yao, Founder & Chief Data Science Officer of Pymetrics

Gender diversity is a huge asset for startups and companies in general; however, when it comes to that long list of urgent priorities on a new CEO’s to-do list, diverse hiring is something that usually ends up at the bottom of the pile.  

While it may not be top-of-mind, incorporating women into your startup is not something you can afford to delay. The fallout of failing to do so may not be immediate, but down the line, product and business challenges linked to a homogenous work force will crop up and affect the success of your business.

Why prioritizing the inclusion of women from the start is crucial

A failure to be deliberate about inclusion at the get-go can easily lead to poor gender diversity habits at the core of your company – something that has been proven to negatively impact businesses in a variety of ways.

One important finding is that a company lacking in diversity finds it harder to attract and recruit top talent down the line. Meanwhile, inclusion of women in the workforce has the power to be a key driver of business growth, as well as in-company innovation. Studies have even concluded that working in a diverse environment can make your employees smarter.

Gender diversity across roles and functions also helps you go to market with a product that solves a wider range of customer problems and helps you target a broader range of demographics. The tech sector’s current homogenous state is only able to effectively target young, white males, leaving many other demographics as available growth areas for startups who value and implement diversity.

Changing the trajectory of an established company requires a long and sustained effort, and is especially trying when the founders and early team members aren’t diverse themselves. Implementing the right practices from Day One is the optimal long-view initiative you can take.

Implementing the right practices from Day One is the optimal long-view initiative you can take.

The gender diversity challenges faced by startups

There’s no denying that prioritizing the inclusion of women – or any other under-represented group in the tech space – is a trial during those early days. Budgets limit the number of hires and small teams mean less room for diversity. During their first year, startups are typically no larger than 10 people (at best!), which can make it difficult to hire a gender-balanced team.

On top of this, startup founders often don’t have the luxury of time when recruiting extra employees. This means they pull from their own pool of connections in order to hire help quickly and efficiently. It’s an effective short-term fix, but the downside is that if the CEO, founding board, or hiring manager is a 28-year-old white male developer, his professional network consists mostly of 20-something white men.

Aside from hiring practices, with startup life being particularly demanding on everyone involved, things like establishing innovative HR practices or a female-inclusive company culture are seen as frills. But without these structures in place, company culture grows organically based on your existing homogenous workforce and unconscious bias soon sets in.

This means that when you do begin to hire more women – and if they actually take the position – the environment is unlikely to nurture them into happy, long-term employees.

How to create an environment inclusive to women from day one

As Microsoft’s own startup lead in NYC, Tereza Nemessanyi, points out: “Workplaces don’t become inclusive unless companies invest in diversity — and that starts at the top, from the start.” Company culture is determined early on and as a co-founder of a startup you have the ability to structure your company in the direction you’d like to see it grow. CEOs may feel their time is better spent elsewhere, but there are a number of steps you can take during the initial phase of a company’s lifespan that won’t pull resources you can’t afford to spare.

Create a company mission

If diversity is to be a core part of how your company operates, it should be part of the foundations from the very beginning, forming a cornerstone of your startup’s philosophy and values. Set clear goals for areas like hiring to ensure focus and effort are directed to the right places and be clear to employees that the company’s ethos is one of inclusion.

Look beyond your networks

Your own personal and professional networks are likely to contain many of the same types of people. Share your hiring needs beyond your immediate connections, whether it’s by utilizing hiring agencies, posting job applications in a wide variety of places or working with diverse business networks that can help you form new connections. Be vocal about your diversity priorities – you’ll be surprised at how many people will be excited to help you meet your goals!

Implement inclusion strategies

Diverse hiring practices are a huge first step, but it’s important to ensure your company’s day-to-day practices reflect these commitments. Grubhub, whose executive team and workforce are now almost 50% female, created an inclusive environment through the example set by its CEO. As a dedicated family man, he created a culture in which male employees weren’t afraid to prioritize their children. Paternity leave was taken without a second thought, and this, in turn, meant female employees didn’t feel at a disadvantage or judged when taking maternity leave.

Adopt new tools

Developers have released numerous tools to help companies cultivate gender diversity efficiently and effectively. For example, Calibration is about to launch a new version of their tool to monitor gender bias issues and highlight trends in how employees are being ranked and treated.

Unitive is another tool that can help diversify your hiring process. It helps identify gender bias in the job posts you’re constructing, notice unfavorable trends in how you’re assessing resumes or help you build an inclusive interview structure.

Take advantage of initiatives

There are numerous organizations and projects that help startups diversify their company’s structure and practices. Project Include was established by a number of successful women in the tech industry and now plans to work directly with a group of up to 18 startups to encourage change. They also share the data collected through their research and best practices for making your company more inclusive.

Conclusion

If you’re about to launch a startup or your company is in its early stages, now is the time to begin implementing gender diversity measures. It’s never too late to begin, but the process gets tougher the more uniformity has been ingrained in company culture and structures, so it’s shrewd to start as you mean to go on. The benefits of incorporating and welcoming more women into companies are clear and varied, and the practice is one that facilitates growth and long-term success. The question is no longer “should we try to make our company more diverse?” It’s “how can we afford not to?”