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Welcoming Women and Parents: Reimagining Startup Culture

Kauffman researcher Emily Fetsch looks at how startup culture can be more inclusive to women and parents.

When it comes to startup culture, the HBO comedy Silicon Valley is said to accurately portray what it’s like to be in a bustling new business — right down to working long hours in a male-dominated atmosphere.

Startup culture is distinct in its emphasis on appealing to the young, single male. It is this culture that is known to attract high-achieving entrepreneurs, with two-thirds of them saying culture was a motivation in their decision to start up.

In reality, these very characteristics can contribute to the isolation felt by two groups of prospective entrepreneurs: parents and women.

The show glorifies all-night coding sessions — seemingly impractical for parents of small children — and offers a peek into the perceived “bro culture” that may not be so welcoming to women.

If culture is truly a primary motivating factor for aspiring entrepreneurs, how can it be more inclusive to both parents and women?

Photo courtesy of the Department of Education via Flickr.

To begin breaking down these barriers, we need more women-led startups and founders who advocate for family-friendly policies.

The more women founders there are, the more opportunity there is for gender-inclusive businesses.

One recent report said that nearly one-third of US women in the science, technology and engineering (SET) fields said they were “likely to quit within a year.” According to one report “fully 52 percent of highly qualified women working for SET companies quit their jobs, driven out by hostile work environments, isolation, extreme work pressures, and a lack of clarity surrounding career paths.”

However, Kauffman research shows that women make up a small minority of business owners. To have more women-led startups, barriers to financing and changes in perception of women within entrepreneurship need to be addressed. The financing gap is a huge challenge facing women entrepreneurs. Male entrepreneurs secure 60 percent of their startup funding from external sources, compared to 48 percent of women entrepreneurs. Research has also shown that people perceive entrepreneurship as a “masculine” activity. Changes in perception of what an entrepreneur is “supposed” to look like can also encourage women to become entrepreneurs.

Older startup founders can also transform startup culture. According to the Kauffman Index, older people are increasingly becoming new entrepreneurs, while the rate of new entrepreneurs is the lowest among the youngest group.

As noted in The New York Times, as startup founders get older and start families, they might be more aware of the challenges facing parents and begin to implement more family-friendly policies.

Authors Peter Thiel[i], Tony Hsieh[ii], and Randall Stross,[iii] among others, have addressed the glorification of “busy” and glamorization of youth within startup culture.

Their respective books mention how startups emphasize “a tribe of like-minded people fiercely devoted to the company’s mission”[iv] with “every new hire…equally obsessed” with the company.

In The Launch Pad, Randall Stross shares how the seed capital firm Y Combinator views the advantages that young, single people bring to startups:

“Candidates in their early thirties most likely had children and mortgages, which put them at a considerable disadvantage compared to the twenty-five-year old. ‘The thirty-two-year-old probably is a better programmer but probably also has a much more expensive life,’ [co-founder Paul] Graham wrote. The twenty-five-year-old had the most advantages, which included ‘stamina, poverty, rootlessness, colleagues, and ignorance.’”

There is also a discrepancy between executive-level workers and their employees. As The New York Times highlights, not all employees can build a nursery adjacent to her office like Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer.

Parent employees, at all levels, could benefit from having the flexibility given to a company’s highest-level employees. This is an idea that is starting to grow within Silicon Valley. 

“As Silicon Valley ages, and 20-something entrepreneurs become 30-something parents, the culture is beginning to change.  Offering a family-friendly workplace has become a recruiting strategy.”

Leaders in the startup community should talk frankly about their own challenges in maintaining a work/life balance to help create more dialogue about the potential stresses of the startup lifestyle on families.

Startup culture has many positive attributes, including a focus on growth, dedication to company, high energy, and intolerance for mediocrity.

However, addressing its reputation for isolating parents and women could make startups an even more attractive option to a broader audience.