3 steps startups can take early-on to balance the gender gap

Alexis Clark, Recommind
Alexis Clark, Recommind

Women are not absent from the technology industry; they are emerging in greater numbers than ever before. Marissa Mayer, CEO and president of Yahoo!, Meg Whitman, CEO and president of Hewlett-Packard, and Virginia Rometty, CEO and president of IBM, are a few women in top executive positions within some of the world’s most powerful technology companies.

How did these women come to succeed in a male-dominated industry? I believe they followed their interests without accepting limits, and this is something that women in all levels of an organization can embrace. This certainly has been a driving principle in my life. From an early age, I have benefitted from the example of very strong women and the empowering atmosphere of The Hockaday School, a girls’ school in Dallas. This let me follow my interests independent of societal pressures.

My interests led me to data science as a path of study and as a career. I studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus in computer science. I had a passion for language and how it is used, which led to a passion for machine learning, data analytics and what we can learn by using them. This interest fueled my career choices outside of college. As a female data scientist, I know from personal experience that the number of women in startups and technology companies are not near where they should be, but the opportunities are out there and our numbers are growing.

As I see it, there are three things that startups can do early on to balance the gender gap and even out the numbers for the benefit of the business:

Hire employees from a broad range of experiences

The most innovative companies and organizations I’ve worked for hire employees with a wide assortment of degrees and real-world experiences.

Recommind is a perfect example. When looking for a data scientist, Recommind cast a wide net and hired me for my expertise in information intelligence, helping corporations and law firms find the right information in enormous data sets. Mine is a truly collaborative role working with many teams across the organization to help our clients and build innovative data analytics into the software.

Recommind took the right approach. Companies should build teams from a broad range of experience as it fuels creativity and innovation. According to a gender diversity report published by The National Center for Women in Information Technology, gender-diverse technology organizations produce successful teams that demonstrate improved innovation and productivity. This shows that broadening the team can be the source of real strength.

Create a flexible culture

One common perception of startup environments is that employees must spend 23 out of 24 hours working, since resources are tight and employees wear many hats. However, again, I’ve found the most innovative companies accommodate flexibility and demand employees do the same. Creating a company culture where everyone can do his or her best work often requires a healthy work-life balance.

In my own case, I need flexibility to protect special family time. For instance, I never miss dinner with my children, I attend their special events and I participate in their lives. My work fits into my life, and my life fits into my work. It’s important to allow employees to protect what’s important to them outside of work and creating a flexible work-life balance culture early on can help to attract a workforce with a diverse set of needs, and even boost productivity and commitment.

Hire female leaders

When building out the team, startups should ensure they have a diverse group, with multiple points of view. Diversity builds more diversity. If women are in positions of authority, other women may follow. Where there is one, there will soon be many.

Here’s an example -- at Google I/O this year, Google’s X vice president Megan Smith announced a new initiative in conjunction with Code School that will pay for three months of programming classes for women and minorities—an effort undoubtedly to improve Google’s diversity. Google has moved beyond simply recognizing the gender imbalance in the technology industry to actively taking a part in eliminating it. With more and more companies taking active roles in embracing diversity like Google has, I’m confident we’ll see women continue to emerge in both influence and absolute numbers.

So, for all those entrepreneurs and startups out there, consider your numbers. Multiple voices, points of view and perspectives foster a culture of creativity and innovation. Also, your customers are demanding it. If you’re not striking the right balance between men and women, you’re doing yourself and your business a disservice—now, and in the future!

  • Alexis Clark is a data scientist at Recommind, an information intelligence software company.