Story of a startup that did not start Up!

A friend of mine recently joined the R&D division of a cool new start-up in the Silicon Valley. She is one of 15 women in this company which has 24 employees currently – what a great gender ratio, right? I was very heartened to hear this…but as her narrative unfolded, I saw more and more signs that this was turning into a missed opportunity for gender inclusion. And all because the leadership doesn’t get it!

The organization’s masculine culture emphasizes fast results and excellence – wonderful goals to aspire to, but they are manifested in the organization’s mascot (for lack of a better term) – a bear! And the organizational values are those that the bear stands for…“aggression”, “brute force” and “territory capture”. Employees vie for the “Bear of the month” prize – a T-shirt with the face of the bear and eyes strategically placed. No reasonable female winner would feel comfortable wearing the T-shirt outside her home. 

But these are subtle and weak ways in which the exclusive, stereotypical male culture is being propagated.  You might think I’m paranoid and have a chip on my feminist shoulder for thinking this. But it’s hard to ignore the more overt misguided steps taken in the name of supporting women. The organization has set up a women’s book club – not a bad idea in itself. But the leadership mandates what the women should read (red flag, anyone?!), and Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer top the list. Again, wonderful and accomplished women, but his message here is that women’s advancement is the sole responsibility of women – organizations and (male) leaders have little to do with it. Even more disturbing are the common instances of women’s ideas being shot down at meetings, avoidance to address conflict within teams but to immediately fire somebody for poor performance and the condescending tones when two women disagree with each other. 

Founders have an immediate as well as long-lasting influence on the culture of the company – a fact that is established by organizational scientists and employees alike. As such, entrepreneurs have an amazing opportunity – and responsibility – on their hands to create an inclusive culture while also focusing on becoming a successful and sustainable business…these are not incompatible goals, and in fact, research would suggest are entirely complementary. If only every entrepreneur understood this…

In writing this, I am hopeful that this finds its way to entrepreneurs in Bangalore’s start-up culture. I do hope that it provides a lens to the nuances of workplaces cultures and the importance of getting it right. It may just avoid an Uber blog! 

Dr. Aarti Shyamsunder is an I-O psychologist and has an independent consulting practice based in Bangalore, India. She obtained her Ph.D. and started her career in the U.S., on employee selection and assessment. In 2010, Aarti returned to India, where she led the Infosys Leadership Institute’s efforts to assess and develop its global high-potential leaders. She then worked as Director for Research at Catalyst (India) for three years, conducting and disseminating research on gender diversity and inclusion. In addition to co-authoring book chapters and presenting research at international conferences in the United States, Europe, and India, Aarti has published in peer-reviewed journals and books. She was recognized as one of India’s Future Emerging HR Leaders at the The Are You In The List 2013 Awards.