Female Hiring Readiness Levels (FHRL)
Founders of startups, from small to large, all want to create more inclusive workplaces and hire women. They really, really want to and yet many fail. Women currently make up only 34% of the startup employee workforce and as an investor, and as a former only “female engineer” in the room, I want to help founders succeed in bringing this number up. Because hiring a diverse pool of talent brings a diversity of perspectives that mirrors the diversity of the customers and builds a sustainable business. Sustainable companies give the highest returns to the employees, founders and ultimately investors. For example, BCG released a study that brought to light that women-owned companies generated 10% more cumulative revenue and had a higher return on investment than their male counterparts. Make no mistake, building a female friendly company is as much about the money as it is about doing the right thing.
A few months ago, after a full day of being pitched by awesome all male teams, who all said they would love to hire women but can’t, it was clear I have to do something to help them. That night, I built a raw website www.shesready2.dev. The idea was for founders to have a free place to post jobs to an audience of product and engineering ladies. Very quickly I learned that it’s not enough to help them hire women, they also need help in building female friendly companies. I spoke with many women to understand how their companies are making their work environment female friendly. Below you’ll find the 3 broad lines that I discovered, including: Hiring, Thriving and Sustaining; that I hope will help founders and startup teams to hire a more diverse workforce. Everything in this blog is just a suggestion, not a silver bullet.
You could pick Investors and Board members that also want to make your startup more female friendly. Do they have a talent team that can provide gender diverse candidates? Can they make sure that diverse candidates are being interviewed for all open positions? The time when you hire your first female employee is important. It’s a lot easier to hire women if the early team is diverse. If you wait to hire women after you hire the first 10 guys, it’s much harder. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes. Hire her early! Another thing to watch out for, when hiring, is screening out the toxic males who can’t work with women. It’s much more expensive to train them later on and deal with the damage than to simply not hire them at all. One simple strategy for that is to make sure every hire speaks 1:1 to both men and women on the team — a good way to suss out any big red flags.
The job description is another important component. To make it more attractive for female employees you could include details about the company culture, parental leave and insurance. Your culture is what behavior gets rewarded and what are the characteristics of people who thrive in your organization. Female friendly companies have at least 6 months of parental leave, with the option to work from home for the next six months. Notice, I did not call it maternity leave, but parental leave, because all parents should act as parents. Early team members often set the blueprint for this policy, for better or for worse, so make sure to set up a good example. Health insurance is another great add to the job description. Many companies offer the basic options, which in US, unfortunately, are favorable for young, single, cis-males. The healthcare benefits say a lot about how female friendly a company truly is. Founders, do you know if your health benefits cover all your employees and what’s included?
Equal Pay — if the way you pay your female employees does not speak to how you are treating them, then I don’t know what does. In certain places, like California, there are laws for equal pay. And yet, word on the street is women are underpaid and one rarely hears of companies being fined for paying men more because of their gender. The story does not add up and women continue to be underpaid. My purpose isn’t to solve world hunger with this blog or the pay gap or to address the grey workarounds that HR departments use to legally pay women less, but to suggest to pay your women as well as you pay your men if you want to be a female friendly company. Most women don’t negotiate pay when they get hired or when they get promoted, but they will find out if you underpay them and are more likely to say yes to other opportunities with market pay. Ladies, if the hiring company does not see this as their responsibility, I encourage you to negotiate your salary, the worst they can say is no. Find salary negotiation workshops that help you practice or call a friend or contact me. I’ve found leading with your value and commitment to the org is much more effective than calling out ranges you got from a salary survey of friends and colleagues. Though I always do that first for my own knowledge. Founders, your HR or you early on, should do annual salary reviews with the market, but also constantly try to be equitable in your compensation models. Also, train your hiring managers and HR team to never ask “what did you earn at your last job?”. Ladies, if they do that, run for the hills.
Don’t lower the bar, hire based on data. In tech, diversity initiatives often end up “lowering the bar” which means women end up at lower levels of seniority and experience. It’s very damaging to the company and the candidates hired if people feel like “you’ve lowered the bar” to accept more women. It puts the women you hire in a terrible position, because there’s always going to be a cloud over them. Instead you can try to make your offer more attractive to attract a candidate who is at the level you were hiring for and make your hiring data driven. When I started in VC I sourced a company that used ML for a data driven hiring approach to foster diversity by hiring based on talent data and not gender, Plum.io led by Caitlin. This is just an example of software we can use if we care enough to put the effort into fixing the problem. To be continued in the Promotion section.
You hired her, now you have to set her up for success. Female employees often have trouble making their voice heard. And it’s not for a lack of voice, it’s for a lack of empowerment to use their voice. One way you could address this is to do a quick run through of attendees thoughts/feedback, this way it’s not pointing out the fact that a female may or may not have had a chance to voice their opinion, this is preemptive and cordial all around. Also, train your male employees to not interrupt, and listen without thinking about what they want to say next, acknowledging their and other people’s feelings. This would avoid the often encountered situation when some male colleagues have a habit of providing expert opinions whenever a female member tries to offer her view on a subject. This isn’t very encouraging.
Mentorship. Lack of internal mentorship opportunities is a real downside of working somewhere early-stage. And frankly, early-stage execs don’t have time to develop their people. Many founders are not realistic about this. Hiring external mentors, and most importantly, helping team members find those mentors to ensure a good match, is a good way to entice, develop, and retain good talent. Another characteristic of early stage startups is the scope of the employees job is fluid. So there is the possibility and benefit to encourage her to work on things she values most and meet people /mentors from those areas. If your startup is more late stage, you could include mentorship in the workplace. You could get her on a project with a senior where she could get mentorship opportunities on the job. Incentives could be provided to the mentors as well as the mentees like Gift cards, Award lunches, Spotlight in the next company newsletter or internal email and Completion certificates so that it’s a win-win for both mentor and mentee. These mentorship practical tips can benefit both female and male employees.
Promotion. A promotion should never be a surprise for anyone involved, so this requires lots of communication on a recurring basis. The promotion process should be clear, with transparent goals. Mentorship is also big for this. A senior and experienced colleague who has had a promotion in the past could guide a female colleague in preparing for promotion. Of course this should be voluntary. But the company could create a pool of such individuals who are willing to help others in traversing the promotion landscape. Another useful thing to do is to calibrate well the extra effort needed to ramp up to avoid forcing employees in roles that they can’t sustain. Promoting women knowing they won’t be able to do the job is setting them up for failure and disappointing the employees who would report to them. Offer support in the areas that need the most improvement.
Congratulations, you’ve hired them and they are thriving. But how do you sustain this? One way to maintain what you got going is to set up Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and pay their leaders. Companies like LinkedIn reward their ERG leaders because it fosters belonging and it creates a safe space for them. Something else that is super useful is having a female in a leadership role, a female who does not have a zero sum mindset, a female who has been proven to support other women in the past. Unfortunately nowadays there are many people who give lip service, both men and women. So testing for action is imperative. So is training. Workshops around communication, constructive criticism, Build/Break/Build, these concepts cannot be taught enough in a professional setting.
Unwanted sexual attention. Absolutely all women whom I discussed building female friendly companies mentioned this has either happened to them or that they would want the companies they work for to have a concise, easy way to report unwanted sexual attention/harassment. I too stand with them. There should be an option to also provide the feedback anonymously. Make it as easy as possible. There are startups out there who provide a solution to this problem, one of them is MettaSpace led by Eleanor and Helena. If you are building software to address this problem, please reach out. Even if my bread and butter is early stage investing in infrastructure/ML, I do believe this is an important problem that we should all try to fix.
You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Sharing hiring, promotion and churn demographic data of female employees internally and with prospective candidates is one way to measure the sustainability of your female friendly company. Anyone can derive most of these stats anyway, if they look at your Linkedin organization and the list of current and past employees. Ladies I encourage you to do this when joining a later stage startup or an older organization, LinkedIn data doesn’t lie.
All in all, I think having a lot of special-case processes and programs for women is unideal — it can easily be sort of othering, or make differences between people and a more central and salient topic. Ideally it’s better for this not to be an issue. But obviously, a company having diversity issues is unideal, and if you don’t do anything about it nothing will change. I hope you can use at least some of the suggestions I’ve laid out above. Please email me or comment if you have other suggestions to address this important topic, so we can all learn.