Building a Diverse Startup from Day One

Luke Sykora, Stanford University June 26, 2019

As a postdoctoral fellow studying diversity and inclusion at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Alison Wynn is abundantly aware of the gender diversity gaps that continue to impact the modern workplace. Still, as she prepared to investigate tech recruiting sessions a number of years ago at an unnamed West Coast campus, she was expecting to encounter a fairly tame dataset. Her more significant worry, from a research perspective, was that she’d find nothing at all. “It’s going to be so scripted,” her research advisor cautioned, echoing her own concerns. “Company executives know they’re on display. It’s going to be sanitized.”

Instead, in the 84 sessions she and her undergraduate research assistants observed, they encountered presentations largely dominated by men. A male speaker introduced a female HR representative by saying: “She’s really nice; she cries easily.” If female engineers attended — not very common — they didn’t often get speaking roles. One presentation boasted of a culture defined by foosball, beer pong, beer fridges and a “Nerf gun army,” as if the company were a professional frat house.

At another session, 8 out of 14 women simply walked out before the presentation was finished. “People talk about the problem with the pipeline,” says Wynn — the idea that there just aren’t enough women interested in tech to create a gender-balanced tech company. “But here, you lost more than half of the potential [female] pipeline just in the way you advertised in your session!”

“The fixes are often not very expensive. They’re things an entrepreneur can think about without having multiple HR teams.”

In 2018, Wynn published her findings in a Social Studies of Science article entitled “Puncturing the pipeline: Do technology companies alienate women in recruiting sessions?” In that piece, she lays out the many ways the recruiting sessions created chilly environments for female attendees. She also points to the real-world implications of these dynamics, referencing a 2011 study showing that while 40 percent of men with STEM college degrees work in STEM jobs, only 26 percent of women do. The problem, that statistic suggests, isn’t that women lack the interest or talent to pursue careers in science and technology. Rather, structural impediments are preventing those passions and skills from translating into actual careers. And those impediments, Wynn’s research suggests, start cropping up before a candidate has even submitted a cover letter and resume.

Fortunately, says Wynn, there’s an ever-growing toolkit for companies that want to promote diversity within their organization. And the benefits of pursuing diversity go well beyond simply doing the right thing. “There’s a robust business case for diversity,” she says. “For example, they’ve found that diverse boards improve financial outcomes.” Among many similar examples, she brings up a 2013 study suggesting that more gender-diverse R&D teams tend to produce more radical innovation.

The best part? “The fixes are often not very expensive,” she says. “They’re things an entrepreneur can think about without having multiple HR teams.” We asked Wynn to point her lens specifically at startups and draw from the latest research to help guide founding teams down a more inclusive path. In response, she identified seven practices that startups — even if they’re just a couple of students in a dorm room — can adopt to make sure they grow into a diverse and inclusive team.

1. Consider blind auditions

In the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras began employing blind auditions to remove bias from hiring decisions. Potential hires would literally perform a recital behind a screen, and the orchestras would hire based on the performance rather than the identity or appearance of the musician. To a significant extent, it worked: 25% more women musicians were hired after orchestras made the switch.

The technique, says Wynn, is still potentially useful, particularly in fields where technical ability is easy to test and analyze. For example, a platform called GapJumpers helps companies apply that strategy to modern skillsets. “It’s the tech version of a blind audition,” says Wynn. “The hiring manager can design a coding challenge that’s commensurate with what they’ll be doing on the job.” According to Forbes, GapJumpers claims to increase the chances of minority and female applicants being offered a first-round job interview by about 40%.

2. Use welcoming language and imagery when recruiting

As Wynn observed the many diversity-discouraging practices in tech recruiting sessions for her “Puncturing the Pipeline” paper, she couldn’t help but notice that researchers had already identified fixes for many of the problems she was seeing. Among them: feature diverse presenters, emphasize the company’s real-world impact and explain technical jargon.

“Making the presentation more approachable doesn’t mean lowering your standards — it means creating a welcoming environment.”

On that last point, she’s not suggesting that women are in any way ill-equipped to understand technical terminology. Rather, she points to research showing that women tend to hold themselves to a higher standard than men in technological fields, and require more evidence of their ability in order to feel competent.

“Making the presentation more approachable doesn’t mean lowering your standards — it means creating a welcoming environment,” she writes in “Patching the Pipeline: Tips for Recruiting Women in Technology,” a follow-up guide for practitioners based on her earlier research. “Companies can always evaluate technical expertise during the interview and hiring process; at the recruitment stage, companies should seek to welcome potential candidates and encourage their interest in the company.”

Imagery, she suggests, is also key. And that means more than just avoiding recruiting PowerPoints with obvious triggers like sexualized music videos and stereotyped TV characters. It also means lowering the geek factor. Why? For starters, a 2009 study showing that geeky references tended to reduce women’s interest and sense of belonging in computer science.

3. Think about neutral space

Some of the pushback against Wynn’s “Puncturing the Pipeline” paper came from readers who questioned whether she was making unfounded assumptions about women: that women don’t appreciate, say, geek culture. Or that they don’t enjoy a good IPA.

“I’m definitely not trying to say women can’t be geeks, or can’t be into beer!” she responds. “I mean, I go to a sci-fi/fantasy convention every year in Atlanta. It’s really a question of: ‘Can I be successful here, can I move up in my career?’ Even for women identified with STEM, those sorts of cultural aspects send signals that tend to make women feel like they can’t fit in.”

Those signals aren’t limited to verbal messaging and office behavior. They can also come from the physical space that the company creates.

When Wynn talks with companies about how gender and work culture intersect, she says they often tell her things like: “We love our foosball tables. We love that we all shout at each other in meetings. We’re really into geek culture and each of our rooms have different geek things.”

Wynn’s response? “I say, be who you want to be as a company, but know what impact your choice is having,” she says. “It’s asking companies: What are you really trying to get at? And then let’s find the best way to create that environment, and in a way that’s most inclusive to everyone.” Whether companies want to create a fun environment, give off a relaxed vibe or design a space that encourages open communication, there are ways to reach those goals without resorting to gendered cultural icons. And if companies ask about simply balancing out their foosball table with a nail salon, she reframes the goal.

“My answer is no: You don’t need to have ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ spaces. You need general spaces that are welcoming to everyone.”

4. Make flexibility universal

Some companies with demanding cultures and work schedules, Wynn finds, make accommodations for parents, creating “flexibility programs” that allow working parents to adjust their hours. But that’s not necessarily enough. “Companies are thinking of it only as a women and particularly a mother program,” she says. “It’s like: ‘We’re going to work crazy hours, and then have a few moms who I guess work differently.’”

“A lot of my work challenges the assumption that long hours lead to better products.”

Instead, she encourages companies to think about flexibility as a universal need. “Especially at the startup stage, a lot of founders think you’ve got to work 24 hours a day: ‘We were up at 3 in the morning!’ A lot of my work challenges the assumption that long hours lead to better products.”

Wynn also points to work by Harvard Business School professor Leslie A. Perlow that follows a concerted effort within the Boston Consulting Group to alter their nonstop work practices in favor of more work/life balance. “They find that teams do better,” says Wynn. “If you know your teammate needs to take time off, you’re more likely to increase your communication with them and learn how to take over for them when they’re not there.”

She adds that everyone, whether or not they’re a parent, is going to have a life outside of work. “Rather than: ‘We just need to tack on a program for moms,’ thinking about flexibility as something every human needs is going to destigmatize it in the culture,” Wynn advises.

5. Formalize performance metrics

Beyond tending to single out and stigmatize working mothers in particular, there’s another problem with opt-in flexibility programs. “If you have an add-on program that’s not built into the performance management system, it’s very ineffective,” Wynn posits. “If a woman becomes a new mother, and there’s this add-on parental leave program: she might ask: ‘How can I be expected to know how my evaluation will go this year if I take 6 months off? Will my manager even understand how to evaluate me?’”

“A lot of the work we’re doing now is looking at performance evaluations,” Wynn continues. “Startups don’t always have performance evaluations, but one thing I would encourage is to formalize that quickly, because we know there’s a lot of bias if you’re paying people or promoting people based just on what you think they deserve on a gut level.”

6. Break out of your bubble

“The biggest thing I would tell four students in a dorm room is: Get diverse voices as early as possible,” Wynn advises. “If you’re four white men, you’re going to have a distinct way of thinking about your product. Diversity needs to be a part of how you do everything: How you hire, how you think about your product and your client base. Referrals, we know from research, are biased. Your network of people is going to look a lot like you. Obviously, you have to rely on your network from the start, but it has limitations, and you have to make a concerted effort to branch beyond that. By the time you think of it and add it on later, it’s too late — you’ve already started hiring, you’ve already built a product.”

So how do you expand that network?

“One mistake that a lot of big, established firms make is that they tend to recruit at just a few key schools,” she says. “And there are a lot of reasons why that can be useful. But pretty quickly, you should start looking at schools beyond the obvious ones. Even the big recruiting firms are starting to do that: Looking at historically black colleges, or more rural schools — schools outside their usual set.”

“Diversity needs to be a part of how you do everything: How you hire, how you think about your product and your client base.”

Startups can plug into networks focused on female talent, too, to strive for gender diversity. “There are places that women are known to convene in tech,” she observes. She points to Women Who Code groups, and the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest annual gathering of female technologists. She also mentions regional groups like Watermark, a Bay Area organization devoted to increasing the number of women in leadership positions, and the Professional BusinessWomen of California, which emphasizes both networking and skill-building. And to get a real jumpstart, she suggests Girls Who Code: “That takes women who are in high school, so you can start developing that pipeline even earlier.”

7. Measure your impact

Whatever methods a founder chooses, Wynn says, the most important thing to remember is that many of the most insidious biases are organizational, not personal.

“I find that executives often aren’t thinking about organizational biases,” Wynn says. “They’re just thinking about: How can I reduce bias in my own head?” Unconscious bias trainings, she’s found, are a great place to start. “But you can’t just bring someone in for a one-hour training and think that inequality is going to be fixed in your organization,” Wynn adds. A diversity framework developed by Wynn’s advisor Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford and director of the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, actually has five steps: educate, diagnose bias, develop tools, intervene and evaluate.

“Change can be slow. Sometimes it can take a few years to show up in your demographics.”

Periodic evaluation, in particular, is key, since even well-intentioned interventions can lead to unintended consequences. Research from professor Emilio J. Castilla of the MIT Sloan School of Management, for example, has shown that certain ways of emphasizing merit-based pay can lead to compensation decisions that are actually more biased, and less merit-based. So it’s important to test whether diversity initiatives are actually leading to more diverse organizations.

“In our research we usually look at things year-to-year,” says Wynn. “Companies I’ve worked with as a consultant also do similar things. They check whether hiring, promotion and termination numbers have remained relatively equal by gender (or other factors, like race) year-to-year, for each level in each department.”

Some companies, she says, go beyond the raw data by using engagement surveys: “Culture Amp is a great startup that helps companies field these surveys. You can ask questions about all kinds of things: growth mindset, belonging, psychological safety — concepts that are extremely important in the psychological literature and have important implications for companies.”

“Change can be slow,” she cautions. “Sometimes it can take a few years to show up in your demographics.” But in the end, she emphasizes, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. “You might as well understand your problems, so you can work to fix them.”


Alison Wynn’s postdoctoral research has been supported by funding from Designing Organizational Change, an initiative of STVP (Stanford Technology Ventures Program ).