“Courageous conversations”: There’s a sexism problem in Aussie tech, so why aren’t we talking about it?

sexism in startups

The Dream Collective founder Sarah Liu. Source: Supplied.

When you work in an industry you love, it can be hard to see, or accept, problems in it.

In startups, we all want to think we’re working with and alongside forward-thinking innovators with one foot in the future, and who are working with social responsibility in mind.

But, the rose-tinted glasses of co-working and kombucha mean some not-so-wholesome behaviour goes under the radar.

At first glance, the Aussie startup scene is a woman-friendly one. We have strong role models, with two local unicorns led by women.

Last month, a group of mainly women launched the Envirotech Alliance in Sydney, while organisations such as SheEO and the latest women-only StartMate cohort serve to celebrate and elevate women in business.

You don’t have to look far to find Australian women doing great things.

But, scratch just a tiny bit beneath the surface, and there’s a not-so-woke dynamic at play.

Globally, only 2% of investment dollars go to women. In Australia, the majority of VC funds are founded and led by men, and while more women are rising through the ranks, there’s still a huge disparity at the partner level.

At the same time, social media makes it much easier for people to express their true feelings for all to see, and on forums such as Twitter and LinkedIn, posts about women and gender equality are invariably met with criticism at best and toxic misogyny at worst.

And we’re only talking about women here. When the conversation turns to the LGBTQIA+ community, or racial disparity, things get even uglier.

Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs announced it would not be taking companies to IPO unless they had at least one woman ‘or an otherwise diverse’ board member.

In doing so, the bank inadvertently sparked a debate in the Sydney Startups Facebook group, which led to an article in the Australian Financial Review, which sparked yet another debate in the Facebook comments section.

Some approached the topic with genuine curiosity. Others appeared to get angry.

Notably, prominent Aussie entrepreneur and Shark Tank investor Steve Banks weighed in.

“Talk about sexism. What a load of rot,” he commented.

“Its [sic] seems you women need positive discrimination to get a look in. I imagine people getting roles under those circumstances must feel super about it,” he later added.

Death threats and online abuse

To many, it’s clear sexism is alive and well in startupland.

Hannah Moreno, founder of finance and tech PR firm Third Hemisphere, was one of the most vocal women in both the original and subsequent online debate.

While there are many advocates for diversity in the startup community, there are others who are “completely unwilling to accept that sexism even exists in the first place — let alone that it might explain some of the abysmal statistics around women’s underrepresentation in leadership and board roles”, she tells SmartCompany.

“Unfortunately, these voices seem to be some of the loudest and most insistent. They are also the voices that seem determined to drown out the voices of the women who have actually experienced it.”

Shebah

Shebah founder and chief executive George McEncroe. Source: supplied.

Speaking to SmartCompany, George McEncroe, founder of women-only ridesharing startup Shebah, suggests she’s in something of a unique position, because her startup is a clearly gendered service. She’s always been open about that, she says.

“I’ve received the death threats, I’ve copped the online abuse,” she says.

But, having worked as a high school teacher and a standup comedian, it’s fair to say McEncroe has pretty thick skin. However, not everyone has the same benefit of experience.

The founder of one Aussie business, who asked not to be named, says she and her co-founder are often expected to prove their capabilities in a way they haven’t had to when they’ve been presenting with a man.

“We’ve never seen male colleagues asked how old they are, how many years experience they have, if they want kids, are they married,” she explained.

This woman has been in meetings where people have directed questions to male interns, and had others assume she’s there to take the coffee order.

And in the past, both founders have been referred to as “job perks”, she says, having men talking about “what you get to look at when you come to work”.

Sometimes, this kind of treatment can take its toll, and turn into something more serious.

Another founder who asked not to named recounted how her co-founder left the business following a nervous breakdown.

“A very large part of that was some of the experiences that had bubbled over for her as a result of us raising money and the stress of being a woman in the startup environment in Australia,” she says.

Obviously, running a startup brings significant stress levels. But, dealing with the angel community, and seeing men seeming to get funding much more easily, meant there was an extra barrier to overcome.

Men with products that didn’t have the same traction were walking away with cheques.

“That could not be disputed, there was very evident boys-club behaviour at play,” the founder says.

“You have to show toughness without showing and vocalising some of these issues, because it makes it look like you’re not able to cut it,” she adds.

“That culminated in a lot of anxiety and a nervous breakdown.”

Money talks

McEncroe has also been open in the past about her struggle to win over male investors. She was originally pitching with a business that was generating revenue, and with a working MVP, she says.

“Watching your 26-year-old white boy counterparts getting a cheque … and you walking away time and again is not unheard of at all,” she explains.

“It’s pretty depressing.”

Attracting initial seed funding is one of the hardest things for women founders, she says.

“You’ve got to come across as very successful and very capable,” she says.

“They don’t want to make it more difficult for themselves.”

However, she says she’s since been invited back to a VC firm that thinks it may have “done a disservice” to startups run by women or other marginalised groups.

This fund is actively seeking feedback from some of those founders, to explore how it could have managed the situations better.

“There are certainly VCs that are seeing that very often the male lens is not always the most revenue-generating lens, that there is another market outside the one you know,” McEncroe says.

Puffling founder Lija Wilson says things get even trickier when you’re a mother.

“I hate being categorised as a ‘mumpreneur’ who works part-time and does a little passion project,” she says.

“It’s really no one’s business how I juggle family life … but the fact comes up quite often.”

While some women are running micro-businesses from home, around family life, that’s by no means true of everyone. It’s certainly not true of Wilson.

“This is our livelihood. We’re very serious about this,” she says.

“That’s a label that’s a problem for many female founders who are at more advanced stages.”

Sexism in startups

Puffling founder Lija Wilson. Source: supplied.

Wilson adds to the chorus of women saying they faced prejudice when pitching for investment. But for her, things were made all the more difficult because she was pregnant at the time.

“I’m quite embarrassed to say this … but I ended up hiding it. I only did video calls,” she says.

She went into the process thinking it wouldn’t make a difference, she says.

“It completely did. People’s opinions completely changed.”

Suddenly, Wilson found people were directly questioning how she would maintain her position in the business, and who was going to carry the weight.

“The reality was, I went back to work after two weeks. It was my choice to manage that,” she explains.

“I just feel it’s a personal thing to manage rather than an investment question or a client engagement question.”

When she moved to video calls, all the personal questions stopped. To state the obvious, this isn’t a problem a man would ever face.

“There would be nothing except congratulations,” Wilson notes.

Courageous conversations

Despite the sheer volume of stories like this — and every woman in startups has one, I’m told — we don’t hear about them. When conversations like the recent Facebook thread crop up, we see a few women making their points, but many try not to get involved.

Wilson says she’s had many conversations with other women, who don’t want to be part of the public discussion either because of the emotional toll it can take, or because they don’t want to jeopardise their chances in the future, and be forever branded as a ‘problem’.

“They fear their reputation and their label is going to be affected,” she says.

Again, it can come down to funding. On the Facebook group, Baxter pointedly commented: “There are some people’s opinions not worth aspiring to, suits me. Don’t like my opinions, don’t pitch me.”

When a woman quoted a line from and expressed support for the article, Baxter responded: “How was the reference I gave you?”

Baxter declined to comment for this story, but when this kind of exchange happens online, it stands to reason that women may be put off of approaching certain people for investment. Equally, they may be reluctant to get on the wrong side of someone with power.

Moreno says she was conscious of the potential repercussions she could face, and understands why other women might not want to draw attention to themselves.

“It’s one thing to take on random strangers on the internet; it’s another to take a stand against a well-known personality with the power to influence investors or withhold funding himself,” she says.

But, for many women, it’s also about mustering up the emotional energy to wade into the discussion.

“Participating in discussions on sexism can be almost as exhausting and dehumanising as experiencing the actual sexist behaviour itself,” Moreno says.

As she was in the throes of the debate, she had women messaging her, thanking her for saying “what they felt too afraid or too angry to say publicly”, she says.

“Some said they didn’t have the words to articulate their anger and frustration.

“Others said their mental health was not strong enough that day for the onslaught of abuse and accusations of exaggeration or lying that inevitably come when you explain your lived experiences of gender-based mistreatment.”

Speaking to SmartCompany, Felicia Coco, director of LaunchLink, the PR company she founded with Laura Blue, says often women are reluctant to be “that person who calls out sexism”.

Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to adversely affect their opportunities. Sometimes, they just don’t want to get involved.

“Often the unspoken understanding is that it’s unbecoming to be a loud, outspoken woman, and you’re ‘soft’ for being a feminist if you’re a man.”

However, being in the PR business, Coco says it’s part of her job to know when it’s important to comment publicly, and when to stay in the background.

“Just because something makes someone feel uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be said, particularly when it comes to issues like equality and equal opportunity,” she says.

“Of course people are put off from saying polarising things for fear of losing business,” she adds.

“But if supporting equality turns companies away from working with us, they’re probably not the kind of company we’d want to work with anyway.”

Sarah Liu is founder and managing director of diversity consulting firm The Dream Collective, and works with businesses all over the world to help them attract, advance and retain women.

Liu tells SmartCompany she sees women saying they don’t want to weigh into gender debates because “they don’t want to be vocal or visible”, and they don’t want to be perceived as demanding special treatment.

“They don’t want to be seen as different, and they don’t want to be seen as using this as a card that they play,” Liu explains.

“They’re trying to build credibility.”

But, women often don’t have the same social capital that allows people “to be bold and brave”, Liu says.

They’re trying to keep every funding option open, to protect their reputation and, in short, to please everyone.

“You can only have courageous conversations when you have the luxury to have them,” Liu says.

A diverse desert island

According to Liu, what’s going on in Australia at the moment is not overt sexism or discrimination, “but, there’s a lot of very heavy and strong bias”.

“Often people confuse the two.”

There’s a sense that women essentially have equal opportunities already, she says. So, why should they get special treatment now?

But, even though the opportunities are there, there are biases at play preventing women from reaching them — biases “so systemic they’re preventing women from getting ahead”.

It’s a point of education, Liu says. No man wakes up in the morning and decides to discriminate.

“However, they need to be educated that without intentionally addressing the biases they have, it will affect the way women get hired, it will affect the way women get promoted, and it will affect the way women can progress and access capital opportunities, and be more prominent in leadership positions, especially in tech.”

But, there are ways we can change the conversation and start to balance the scale. And first up, we have to acknowledge the divide in opinion and treat each other with empathy.

“Anything, when it comes with gender these days, becomes so policial and so polarising,” Liu says.

“It’s not about men versus women,” she adds.

“We all have bias. That’s okay. Let’s talk about it.”

If you listen, and accept, and acknowledge someone’s position, “that creates an environment where people are primed to shift their perception”, she says.

“Nobody has ever shifted their perception when they feel attacked, or when they feel the need to go on the defensive.”

Secondly, it helps to get everyone to remove the gender lens from the conversation. To do that, Liu has a question she likes to ask.

“If you were on a deserted island, and you need to pick 10 people who can help you survive, who would you pick?

“Would you pick 10 of the exact same person, with the same profile, same background and same skill-set, or would you pick 10 very different people with complementary skill sets, with a very diverse background?”

When you put it like that, she says, diversity makes sense.

“It’s not preferential. It’s not meritocracy. It’s that you’re bringing a diverse skill-set and perspective that we need,” Liu says.

“Just treat diversity as it is.”

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