Since Marissa Mayer’s appointment as CEO of Yahoo, the media spotlight has gone in search of female senior managers in tech companies and female entrepreneurs. But the harsh spotlight is revealing – in some cases – unpleasant detail. Women speaking out about serious gender bias, describing experiences of mobbing and ridicule, and telling stories of glass ceilings letting careers fall short of their potential.
In what ways is the situation of women in tech and tech-driven startups different from the position of women in other industries? First of all, it probably isn’t, depending on the angle from which you look at it. However there are some significant differences that make the topic interesting enough for some further exploration.
Over the coming months, I will be conducting a series of interviews with women in the startup world in Berlin.
Berlin has been called – among many other things – one of the ultimate entrepreneurial hubs of the early 21st century, and is frequently being named as a fostering ground for startups in the same sentence as London and even the Silicon Valley. The reasons for this are quickly and easily found: a city with an abundance of space, home to extreme numbers of artists, designers and other creatives, relatively disconnected from the conservative rest of Germany, Berlin could be seen as a melting-pot island of friendly chaos. Conveniently located in an overtly organised country synonimous with reliability, efficiency – and their annoying sibling, bureaucracy – Berlin offers many of the upsides of Germany, but only few of its downsides. At the same time it is a cheap city to live in, allowing entrepreneurs to extend their runway by those crucial months it often takes to find out if a new business will find a set of wings or not.
It is only logical that you would also find women in this mix – not only as employees in marketing and PR, not only as office assistants or graphic design interns, but also as founders. However, only very recently have these women begun to attract serious media attention. One demand being made in many discussions is the cry for more female role models for young women.
A cry for role models could be interpreted in a number of different ways. It might be raised to help change the next generation – as role models will take some time to make an impression in younger people looking for someone to model themselves by. Or – playing devil’s advocat – it might just as easily be used as an excuse (“If only I’d had a role model I could have been that much more successful!”) or to shine a particular light on oneself: “Look at me, I made it even though there were no role models for me!”
On the other hand, the general demand for more women in tech is justified. Not because it will make it easier for other women to take foot, but because women can bring value to these companies. Yes – believe it or not – a value beyond cooking coffee and looking good behind a reception desk!
Personally, I am finding the role model discussion particularly interesting. Growing up, I was not exposed to many role models, certainly not gender-specific ones. If there was one gender bias I was brought up with, then it is that there is no foundation for such a thing. It was instilled into me from very early on that being a woman holds neither special duties nor limitations – that my gender is irrelevant to my life choices (with the admittedly crucial exception of the child-bearing issue). In addition to this, growing up in a small town, grand career plans and aspirations were somewhat abstract anyway.
Today, I am living in an environment that was mostly designed by men. In my workplace – my own company – I am surrounded exclusively by men. However listening to some of the discussion around me, I am forced to realise that a lot of women find such situations much less comfortable than I am. The men around me are my co-workers, my colleagues, my peers – and I am pretty sure that none of them would ever think of me as “the woman on the team”. Simply because it is not relevant, neither to them nor to myself. However I am aware that this is not a situation all women in the startup world find themselves in.