Help! I'm Struggling with Sexism in My Start-up
As a co-founder of a start-up with all men, I often find myself outnumbered. Lately, I fear I am working with men who are so young they don't even realize when they are being sexist or insulting my trust and integrity.
Though I am the head of PR for the company, I’m rarely allowed to make decisions and they make deals and calls without letting me be the key contact. I've heard comments like "you make things look pretty" or am asked to come in to the office when there is a female interviewing just to show that we have women in the office. I've pointed out the error in their ways and talked to them when I felt what they said is inappropriate or sexist, but they say I am overly worried or flatly disagree. I am tired of trying to convince them to trust me and my experience—and who knows when they’ll get a clue about sexism?
Honestly, I like the company, I like the guys, and I've been in start-ups before, so I know sometimes it takes awhile for people to get things together. But, I am really frustrated. Is there a way to get them to see the light before I decide to bail?
Struggling Start-up Founder
What a dilemma. As an old-school feminist, my first thought is that all women should insist on respect and equality.
But, I know that to rigidly stand by principle isn’t always possible, practical, or wise in a business setting, and this could be especially be true in the hectic environment of a start-up. I also realize that we are talking about something you’re clearly vested in, as a co-founder, and need to consider that this is your livelihood, your business reputation, and perhaps your dream on the line. I definitely don’t want you to act in haste or with undue emotion, so let’s consider a few things.
First, I think you need to be precise about the meaning and boundaries of “sexism.” Is it possible you’re mixing two separate things together? You suggest that they don’t “trust you or your experience.” Be honest with yourself about the root of that. Is it a real concern? A conflict in visions for the business? Or is this a real form of discrimination based on your gender? There’s a difference between having to deal with a comment such as “you make things look pretty” and constantly being excluded from the decision-making process.
Next, before abruptly “bailing,” go through these steps: 1) weigh the pain now against the potential payout, 2) begin networking to look for other opportunities and determine your potential options, 3) put together a multi-pronged plan for change, and 4) determine a time by which, if you don’t see any change, you would decide not to stay.
No matter what you’re facing, you have to weigh the pain now versus the potential payout later. Determine whether the opportunity to be involved in this start-up outweighs your level of discomfort, and decide where your tipping point is. Is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? How great is the idea? What is your piece of the pie (stock options, ownership of the business, percentage of the profits, salary)? What are the chances of ultimate success?
You should also evaluate your other options—which will definitely impact what you can tolerate. Are there positions at other companies that are available to you? Reach out to some key contacts to get a feel for the current environment, and know what your immediate alternatives are. During this process, consider whether the men in your current setting gave you any clues as to their “sexist” MO at the beginning, and be alert to such clues now.
Unless you’re planning to leave tomorrow, though, you do need a plan for change. Perhaps approach the one guy with whom you have the best relationship and ask for his advice on how to handle the sense that you’re being excluded from the decisions. If you find you can disentangle your sense of being excluded from decisions from any “sexism,” which would indicate that it’s really just a matter of different visions, all you can do is try to use your persuasive powers to encourage them to see things your way.
Before you do this though, analyze the situation to determine if you have any leverage. On this, you haven’t given me much information. Who are these younger men and how did you get involved with them? Was the company one person’s idea, and he took on the rest of you? Or was it a true joint venture? Do you actually have a lot more experience than they do? Even if you do, it may not even matter if it’s their project and you’re second tier.
That said, if you do have leverage, there’s no reason you can’t stand up for the business that you’re creating and make the office environment something that you’re proud to be involved in. Ideally the company will grow and you’ll have the opportunity to bring other women into the fold; so don’t set future associates up for a challenging workplace by not creating the right precedent from the beginning.
It is also very possible that these guys don’t truly know how their actions are coming across to you. The start-up world is more relaxed and informal about things like dress codes, manners, and etiquette, and they may think their “sexism” is innocent fun. So, one way to deal with comments like “you pretty things up” is through humor.
I asked my husband, serial entrepreneur Bob Dorf, to comment on this, and he relayed the following story from back in the day. A lone female executive was attending a meeting with about 10 men. This was when everyone smoked, even in meetings, and it was still considered “gentlemanly” for a male to light a female’s cigarettes. Every time this executive pulled out a cigarette, several of the men sitting around the conference table pulled out their gold lighters to light it, which drew attention to her as a woman and effectively stopped the meeting.
Finally, she said, “Guys, if one more of you lights my cigarette, I’m going to take that lighter and…(you can finish the sentence).” It brought the house down, demonstrated that she had guts, had just enough self-irony to show that she wasn’t a stick in the mud, and accomplished what she wanted: being treated like an equal. I hope you see my point here.
Truth be told, it may be nearly impossible to change these young men, but as you say, in a start-up, sometimes it takes a while to get things together and over time things might just improve. It can help to set for yourself a timeline by which you want to see things improve—and after which, if there’s no change, you would decide not to stay. But, it also may be a matter of just holding on, especially if this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I’m rooting for your success,
Have a question for Fran? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo courtesy of Jacob Botter.
About The Author
Disclaimer: The advice in this column is Fran Dorf's personal thoughts. It is not to be construed as a professional opinion. Fran recommends seeking the advice of a trained professional for any serious matter. Fran Dorf writes the "Just Ask Me" column at the Daily Muse. Fran is a psychotherapist-clinical social worker and author of three acclaimed novels. Her essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in anthologies, national periodicals, and literary journals, and she's working on a memoir. Fran also writes a blog, The Bruised Muse. In her spare time, she reads everything, rants about politics, Zumba dances, skis, plays tennis, travels, and plays with her grandchild, Maya.