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FemTech: Why Culture is Tech’s Biggest ‘Hack’

Attracting and retaining women in technology companies is a complex and frustrating challenge that hits at the core of our social incompetence. With very few role models out there to lean on, and many more that detract (*cough*, Uber) when it comes to developing a healthy, gender diverse tech culture, the industry and the people who make it so valuable have a collective ceiling over their heads that needs to get ‘hacked.’

At FTSY, a startup that is matching people to shoes using new A.I. technologies, we had been warned about Apple’s Health app as an example of what can happen without diversity while launching a technology to the masses. Apple had made big claims about comprehensive health tracking and missed obvious gender needs in their first release. Not that we needed the warning, but it’s obvious that we, and many companies, need to recruit more women at all levels of the company to realize our potential.

FTSY has posted a number of tech positions in recent months and the female applications are, well, sparse! Hundreds of capable developers apply and we go through a merit-based scoring, screening, and interview process to recruit talent. When less than 7% of software developers in Vancouver, B.C., are women, it’s a shallow pool to start with. A recruiter we engaged actually laughed at me when I said recruiting women is important. He’s not working with us anymore. I find the gender disparity and entrenched biases within this otherwise powerful field an embarrassment — feeling the need to apologize, and be a lighthouse. The ongoing disparity and absence of women in key roles impacts the way we think, play, and feel through new experiences.

For those less familiar with women in tech, the situation is similar to how women used to opt-out of legal, banking, and construction sectors. That is, chauvinistic and misogynistic men can easily make a workplace intolerable.

This disparity and biasing was addressed in part by Sheryl Sandberg in her book, “Lean In.” Some background — my leadership course in the UBC MBA was taught by Prof. Jennifer Berdahl, whose research is referenced by Sandberg.

What was controversial about her book, and I’m experiencing now, is it’s not just a women’s job to ‘lean in’ to the barriers, harassment, and wage inequity. The silence by men, who are the incumbent influencers of tech culture, shape the inequity.

Further to Berdahl’s research, men tend to believe they will be successful doing something new that they haven’t done before, while women bias themselves on average more to tasks they have done before versus taking the risk. The pattern extends into not bragging or displaying successes during interviews or salary negotiations. If a project fails, she may get blamed because of her gender, while men can get a pass because the problem may have been hard. This is hugely problematic in tech and innovation roles, where the risk of failure is significant and tends to bias more men to jump into high risk startups while women hold back.

What I’m flagging in this article, is there are tons of women who opt-out of computer science roles because they don’t like the culture in the first place. It’s the Introvert-Bro Problem, or Brogrammer, which is a key layer of culture that needs attention. Much like the Extrovert Wall Street Bro, a woman needs to be sweating testosterone and demand space in the room, take control and be super demanding in order to work up the ladder.

In coding roles, such as Machine Learning, Virtual Reality, or Data Science companies — major innovations of our day, the women around the room are sparse. They feel the pressure to be twice as good, remember everything they’ve ever learned, and be up on all the fringes of the darknet to effectively have their ‘elbows up’ and display their competency.

Being silent about the gender disparity enables the behaviour and ongoing omission of women for key innovation roles. Of all the solutions and suggestions I’ve heard, calling out the disparity is good, and doing something meaningful about it is better.

For FTSY, we are primarily serving women when it comes to shoes (70% of all footwear purchases in the US are by women, and women are primarily on the frontline retail roles), and so we are quite aware of the necessity for women at all levels of this company.

For many, opting out of tech feels like best choice for those getting harassed or passed over. Long term, however, the absence of women in tech becomes a structural problem for designing a future that serves people best. What’s worse, is teams with no women have a much harder time recruiting any. That is, companies who drive women out of tech make it harder for everyone else. Google found that including a woman on a hiring committee increased the acceptance rate after an offer was made. It’s obvious after you let it sink it. If it’s going to be an uphill climb with people harassing you along the way, you want some assurance that there are a few people like you on the same climb that can stand together for change.

We need more tech savvy women at all levels, and it really does start with positive high school and university experiences where safe, enjoyable spaces are made. As far as workplaces go, wherever possible, ensure there is a woman involved in a supervision capacity — hiring, management, on the board, and executive team. Who is asking the tough questions to ensure the culture isn’t on a toxic path, or and clear boundaries are being made to address discrimination? Once you do develop a critical mass and it starts to show in the culture, be diligent and remove those who poison it — quickly.

Here are four actions we are prioritizing:

  1. Leadership

The most important signal comes from the executive team, and CEO specifically, to call out bad behaviour when they see it and make sure everyone in the organization knows that they must treat people with respect.

2. Safety

No dorm room/porn culture. What! You want to take away the posters in my cubicle? Yes, exactly, it’s an office, not your bedroom. No thrusting the printer either. But more important for all team members is Psychological Safety. Google has done some great work on this front and how it impacts team performance.

3. Language

You just can’t wait to talk about how hot someone is? If you’re doing so in the office, on office property, at a conference or any work event, you’re offside, and management needs to be willing to drop the axe on people that reinforce bro-culture. This is about respecting colleagues, and language becomes culture.

4. No Silence

Raising issues and getting ignored or no action? This needs to be raised as an executive priority for the same reasons as any other conflict — responsiveness and addressing feedback are critical to your operations. Treat every employee like your most important customer. Would you leave a million dollar account on hold for four weeks?

If you’re in an interview, ask about the company diversity and inclusion policy. Or, you know that question about how you handle conflict in the workplace? Ask in return how a company handles discrimination or harassment, and ask for a specific example. If they stiffen up and get fearful, you may have just filtered out a toxic culture and a team that doesn’t know how to respond. However, if they get curious about what you mean, there’s a listening culture present, and that’s an awesome signal.

In a prior workplace conflict, I stepped into the fray to resolve a conflict for a female colleague who was getting harassed. It was so stressful on everyone, and yet going through that experience made me more confident now as CEO that these conflicts can be resolved. Many companies will bias themselves that they can’t let go of a member of the leadership team or a high performer, and so excuse their behaviour. They’re wrong, because that person can be lowering the team performance, and preventing other rockstars from joining.

Ending on some hope, it’s impressive what Bumble is doing in a crowded dating app market by converting values and boundaries into product: With Her Dating App, Women are in Control. This is exactly why we need more women in tech companies. Including the deeper discussions on experiences is ultimately what produces better cultures, better products, and more meaningful disruption through technical innovations.

Ryan Smith is Founder & CEO of FTSY — the Match Platform for Footwear. FTSY has female investors, Advisory Board members, and consultants. The executive and staff are currently a team of 8 men. We’re dedicated to cultivating a clever, rigorous, and diverse culture to change the way people buy consumer goods where fit and comfort matters. With thanks to Claire Atkin for the advice, encouragement, and edits in this article!