Survival hacks for women in the male-dominated tech startup space
Yes, we get that ‘women who code’ have become inexplicably (yet, thankfully) toothsome overnight and that ‘women in STEM’ might as well be the new-age suffragettes. Yet, the tally marks signifying gender statistics in the tech ecosystem are still forming a hostile, impermeable fence around it. The tech startup space, no matter how fuelled by young blood and how propelled by contemporary ideas, hasn’t somehow managed to alienate the rusty “all-boys club” stereotype for good. And for the women aspiring to enter, this inhospitable façade could act like anything – from an unfriendly no-entry sign to an intimidating skull and cross-bone danger board.
Manisha Raisinghani, Founder and CTO at Loginext solutions, who is a now a known face in the tech and logistics circuit, still feels like the male–female ratio could be 99:1 at all the forums she graces. As a woman on top of her game, she wasn’t going to let all that slip away owing to a bunch of statistics. Being in control of every other aspect of her life and career, she saw no reason why she couldn’t control how her peers viewed her and how her journey would play out in the larger scheme of things. She did manage to plot her course through this supposed male bastion, and here are the survival hacks that she swears by, from her experience:
Don’t break down. Just break the ice
“When I had first started out, pretty much every forum I attended had men making for at least 90 percent of the attendance. And my worst fears were ascertained, when most of the attendees were clearly uncomfortable talking to me and chose to talk to Dhruvil, my co-founder, instead. More than it being daunting, I was disappointed,” remembers Manisha.
What has been found though, is that most often, this reluctance to approach a female contemporary is not stemming out of an attitude of undermining or condescension, but out of this element of novelty they attach to you. A woman at an all-star tech forum is still an uncommon sight, and chances are – the men in the room have never encountered a woman at the same level as them and would be clueless about how to read her. It might be a simple matter of stage-fright – where making small talk with you, and fashioning a sensible conversation around your rather different life experiences and social conditioning, would have been giving them sleepless nights months in advance.
“You break the ice. Essentially, just show them you are the same species. I did so by taking the initiative to strike up the conversation and breaching the invisible barrier myself,” advices Manisha.
When in doubt, shout out
Not literally, of course, but find it in you to summon the voice that has brought you this far. Studies have proven that women are more prudent and judicious while speaking, in meetings, at forums, or even during one-on-one interactions. This exercising of added caution can be attributed to the fact that women often feel that they are overly scrutinised, and as a result – constantly judged and evaluated. They feel the need to conform to certain stereotypes of being ladylike, soft-spoken, polite and “proper.” Alternately, women who may have reached levels that are equal to, or even higher than their male counterparts, still feel out of place. Because the prevalent social status quo even up on that pedestal they may have rightfully earned, still tells them they don’t really belong there.
“The mental dilemma – to speak or not to speak – is always at the back of one’s mind. As women, somehow, we aren’t exactly open about things. We try to hide what we really mean. I say – muster your confidence, don’t for a second be apprehensive, and speak out. Don’t worry about what they will think or say. People will come around and start accepting your strong female voice in a jiffy,” advices Manisha.
Be aware, take examples
… Or you will get left behind. In a world where women have no trouble matching shoulders with their male counterparts, you shouldn’t still conform to draconian yardsticks of the past. Keep your eyes open, make mental notes; there are some great reference points out there to take inspiration from. “At the beginning, I watched a lot of videos of Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, etc. I would even read a lot, and found Lean In to be exceptional. I learnt that they also faced problems and the same degree of discrimination – but overcame it to climb up the ladder. Once I knew that this feat can be achieved – my resolve strengthened.”
“In fact, whenever I am invited to speak at forums for women professionals, I make it a point to take female employees along to give them the necessary exposure to female success stories – to show them how women can also be at the executive level, and be bloody good at it,” states Manisha.
Conversely, be a mentor and become an example
Your entire ecosystem has stood by you and propelled you to the juncture you have reached. If you are in a remotely more privileged position, make sure you take other women along with you on your journey to the
top. Be a mentor and guide your peers and juniors, especially through crucial phases in their life like the starting of their career, growth, marriage, having children, striking the perfect work-life balance, etc. “You have been supported by your family, friends and peers to make it thus far, but not everyone gets that guidance. So, give it back. We need trailblazers, women to look up to, blue prints to follow. If you do not mentor everyone who looks up to you, you will have failed not only them but also yourself and your responsibilities as a successful woman,” she feels.
Call out sexism and make it count
Run-of-the-mill sexist jokes and references still unfortunately form a large part of our humor and social skills. Sensitisation may have taken place on paper, but for some reason, in slightly informal settings, like a networking session or something as simple as a smoke break – most of these “progressive” ideas succumb to the pressure of the risk of being the “uptight guy” or the “girl who can’t take a joke.”
If you ask me, there is no such thing as a harmless or well-meaning joke – so letting it slide shouldn’t even cross your mind. Having said that, kicking up a storm may not serve the purpose either – as those colleagues may amplify the sexist remarks as a sign of protest to your meltdown. Being tactful but assertive is the answer, thinks Manisha.
“Don’t rebel. Say, a stranger strikes up a conversation on a sexist note, something like – ‘First tell me how you manage to maintain your body.’ To such remarks, ‘Let’s talk business,’ is the thought you want to put across. When I actually start talking business, they realise there was no need to reduce me to my physical appearances, there is more inside. Establish your boundaries. ‘Come to the point,’ tell them.”
Be proactive. Also, brag
“Be visible,” says Manisha. Not only should one be an active part of meetings, discussions, and plans in-house so that they are taken seriously, they must also attend events and forums including the ones they feel will be swamped with male peers.
“Attend tech forums, go do hackathons extensively. Hackathons are almost completely a boy-thing, but that needs to change. If you are interested, you have as much business being there as anyone else does.”
Another truth be told about these forums – they are all about attendees and patrons shooting tall claims and making a fine showcase of their skills, even if it is verbally. In such situations, studies have shown that women tend to underestimate themselves and understate their abilities, whereas men do the exact opposite.
All you need to do, really, is justice to your own credentials and talents and be confident enough to state your worth, so you have the chance to swim with the sharks. “I felt the need to highlight my achievements to be noticed. And I went that extra mile to prove my worth.”
The little things that matter
There are also certain things that one may do on the company front, to ensure that the environment isn’t overtly hostile and doesn’t virtually have a “boys-only club” sign hanging outfront. Loginext is one of the few – perhaps the only – tech startup with has a perfect 50:50 male–female ratio. To achieve this, Manisha insists that gender equality must be imbibed in the culture of the company, not just in its policies.
For starters, tech companies tend to be located at hubs like the tier 1 cities, like Pune and Bangalore, and attract a lot of outstation professionals – which include young aspiring girls with families who can only think about how she’s going into the big bad world.
“Apart from securing the fort on the policy front, with sound mechanisms for maternity leave and sexual harassment, we try to incorporate equality in our culture. At the interview stage, we never ask questions pertaining to a woman’s plans about getting married and starting a family. Besides that, when applicants from tier 2 cities like Patna show interest, we make sure their families are comfortable and sure of us. Social pressure is the only factor that hampers the growth of women. So, I talk to the families personally when they come to drop their daughters, and reassure them that she will be in good hands. And, what I do for the hires I make, my senior developers do so for freshers. Thus, these practices trickle down the fray.”
Flexi hours and working from home are practices we do not mind, as long as our employees manage to deliver. Booking Uber and Ola for women working late, tracking their journeys personally is something we compulsorily do, to go the extra mile for our women.”
“When they see how much we do for their well-being, they will be motivated to serve you better too,” she concludes.