Is your startup sexist?

There may not be ass-slapping anymore, but behind Berlin's seemingly progressive tech scene is a casually misogynist "old boy's club" culture. The geekettes spill all.

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Illustration by Agata Sasiuk

What springs to mind when you think “Berlin start-up”? Probably not the clichéd ‘old boy’s club’ culture of 1960s ad agencies. Yet beneath the surface, at your own workplace or the one behind the latest trending app you’ve just downloaded, sexism is slowly suffocating potential, happiness and professional freedom.

Jaana*, 25, had been working at her start-up for eight months when she, along with the four other women in the company of 13, requested an urgent meeting with management to discuss the conduct of two male colleagues.

“When we worked together to plan concepts, they’d pull faces, roll their eyes, pointedly stare out of the window and act bored. They’ve gotten up and walked away when female co-workers began asserting ideas… One of them even complained that he and another male co-worker found it unfair that they got paid the same as us. Stupid of him, I know, but that just says it all really.”

Jaana recalls how her bosses listened patiently and intently to their complaints. “We were in there for two hours in all and came out feeling so reassured,” Jaana stresses, “They both just sat and listened, taking notes and wanting to know specific names. I just felt so relieved to get it all out, we all did.”

However, two days later, a team meeting was called. “We were told that one of those two male co-workers had been promoted to team leader. He became our boss overnight.” A few weeks after the meeting, one of the founders acknowledged the decision to Jaana privately, adding, “I hope none of you girls think this means we don’t like you or anything.”

“Powerless is the only real way I can describe how I felt after,” says Jaana. “You lose control over who you are at work, and are just thinking, how am I going to get control over that again?” Hands tied, Jaana is now biding her time until her patience snaps which will, at best, lead her into the HQ of an attentive competitor or, at worst – and also most likely – into joblessness.

Today home to 2500 start-ups of Germany’s estimated 5000, Berlin has earned its ‘tech mecca’ reputation. The start-up scene helped turn over €7.5 billion or 2.9 percent of the country’s GDP in 2010, and even the German chancellery showed it was paying attention with Angela Merkel’s visit in March to gaming company Wooga, promising policies to remedy the scene’s flailing finances. And with a continued demand for skilled creative workers, it continues to boast many attractions for female applicants.

Yet Berlin’s start-up scene is a man’s world; one where 42 percent of employees are female but only 13 percent of leadership positions are held by women – lagging behind the already less-than-impressive average of 26 percent across Berlin and Brandenburg, as reported by the 2012 Bürgel Wirtschaftsinformationen survey.

According to the KfW Gründungsmonitor, a critical difference between start-up and classic business models is that 76 percent of start-ups are founded by a ‘team’ – in ‘traditional’ business structures, less than 20 percent are. The Deutscher Startup Monitor also highlighted a positive correlation between these collaborative beginnings, employee satisfaction and company success.

It therefore rings an unexpected tune that when women open up about working in the start-up scene, anecdotes abound. All of which point to the same unnerving reality: latent sexism that is not the old-fashioned macho variety, but a subtler creation. “In the old days you’d be acknowledged the wrong way: now it’s more a lack of acknowledgement and being instantly judged as one of a known breed,” says Sadie*.

Sadie, 29, was part of her start-up’s founding team. “When I started it was just the three male founders and me… I was involved every step of the way: planning the long-term business strategy, making crucial decisions like hiring, finding contacts, pitching to investors…” The company has rapidly grown since then and now employs 21 people including the three founders – 13 men and eight women.

As the company expanded, Sadie began to notice a gradual change in dynamics: “I did start feeling like I was being sidelined with other female colleagues more and more but, with the company getting bigger, I thought that was just in my head and to be expected… After a while, I’d also learned to ignore jokey comments like, ‘Oh, Sadie, don’t worry about this, leave this to the guys,’ followed by mate-y laughter. I’d just be there thinking, ‘No, that isn’t funny.’ All of that I could just about force myself to shrug off.”

In June this year, a make-or-break sponsorship meeting was hot on the agenda for Sadie’s employers. An all-male team was selected to deliver the presentation and it was a huge success. The following afternoon, Sadie’s boss called a meeting but only invited female employees. “Our boss wanted to let us know that we should all feel free to approach him if we felt that being involved would be ‘over our heads’. By being upfront, he said, we could avoid the embarrassing situation of ‘running around like Hühner’ in front of clients. Yes, Hühner.”

A few days later, Sadie spoke to her boss in private to discuss why she had been passed over for the initial team. His response was defensive: “He said, ‘I didn’t mean for it to seem that way. Different people just have different abilities.’ He actually managed to convince me that the problem was mainly my own for a few hours.”

She continues, “I didn’t know what to say. What ‘abilities’ would I have needed? I felt so frustrated… I mean, he chose someone out of his Azubis over women with degrees in the field and several years’ experience. I guess being reduced to a chicken offers some way of understanding the reasoning.”

Beyond the obvious unfair treatment suffered by Jaana and Sadie lurks a more insidious form of sexism, paralysing in its subtlety. Since joining her start-up 19 months ago, Marie*, 27, has suffered gender bias which has gradually sapped her enthusiasm at work and drained her input. Although, as she hastens to add, “I really have no big problems, you know, like physical harassment or anything. It’s something more subtle. You have this nagging feeling that, as a girl, you don’t count as much… you’re not part of the tough-shit league. You somehow feel kept out of the chummy-chap club.”

Despite an even gender divide on her company’s 50-strong payroll, all the top leadership roles are occupied by men. The office is divided by transparent walls, a modern design feature which Marie says unwittingly emphasises unequal dynamics. “Two weeks ago a director left. On his last day, he brought a bottle of booze… which he only shared with the top male management. We ‘worker bees’ were left to witness the farewell drink through those glass walls…”

Balancing her experiences to her time at a corporate PR firm in Brussels which employed 80 people, Marie has felt distinctly undervalued and discarded: “The new director we have, he has no idea who I am. And it’s weird because everyone says “du”… It’s relaxed just in theory. In practice it’s very conservative.”

Tiffany*, 26, has experienced similar gender-based exclusion. She entered her start-up as a marketing intern. “We were all these girls – four interns – and they did use the word Mädels when they were talking to us or about us. But then, obviously, you’re not just split by your gender but by your role and your age – there are so many different dynamics.”

After accepting a permanent role at the end of a four-month internship, Tiffany became her company’s sole full-time female team member, alongside nine male employees who were predominantly from a developer background. Since then, she has often been left blindsided by subtle sexist digs from colleagues. “It’s not that the person said to me, ‘You got good sales results because you’re pretty.’ It’s that in the course of the conversation, that is what I felt was being said… So then it’s very difficult to call them up on it. It’s very tricky.”

Other times, sexist undercurrents have been more obvious: “I was working at a start-up tradeshow in 2012, when a guy in his late 30s, a potential customer and venture capital investor came to talk to me. In no time he was ogling at my dress, saying he could imagine how sexy I looked underneath.” Tiffany recalls how he checked he hadn’t gone too far: “He then asked, ‘Is it OK if I say that?’ and I just ended up saying, ‘Yeah, it’s fine’ because I was in this mode of being very polite – and showing I was not lacking ‘humour’.”

The treatment of women in Berlin’s start-up scene today is less sexual than it is sexist, less abrasive than it is pointed slips of the tongue – and in this casual packaging, it is more difficult to remedy.

“It obviously doesn’t define the people that you work with – who you mostly like and think are nice, progressive, open-minded people – but it’s just like this part of them that sees you and me as different to them,” says Tania*, 26, a graphic designer. With the dominant start-up demographic being young males who are conditioned by the 21st-century progressive, post-feminist era, self-denial is the problem here. Sexism simply doesn’t fit the scene’s self-perception as a modern and innovative force.

So what can be done? Mentoring and networking organisations like Berlin Geekettes and female:pressure hold meetings and workshops to help women in the tech scene. According to Berlin Geekettes’ Sinead Meaney, the key to transforming a sexist workplace culture lies in women turning their ‘otherness’ to their advantage: “Sexism is everywhere, but you have to protect yourself by creating conversations around it. Never let it get inside your head and affect what you’re doing.” Yet the argument of empowering women to shield themselves from inequality and discrimination doesn’t go far enough in addressing the problem.

A lawsuit to make an example of your employer is also a far-fetched option, given that the burden of proof and fees is on the plaintiff and only one gender-discrimination prosecution by a woman has ever suceeded in Germany – former GEMA chief Silke Kühne in 2009. As Gerhard Binkert, judge on the Berlin Labour Court points out, “You need staying power. It isn’t easy. And you could lose.”

So what? More female-led start-ups would be a good beginning. Arianna Bassoli, Johanna Brewer and Emanuela Turnolo founded the live event platform Frestyl together in 2013. Frequently encountering astonishment among peers that a team of ‘only’ women was able to build a venture from scratch, from programming to customer acquisition, the three friends feel like an anomaly in the scene, “like an animal in a zoo,” confesses Bassoli.

Yet the real key to change lies in a cross-gender effort. Just as the progressive thinking that bore these start-up ventures required thinking outside the box, acknowledging the presence and offensiveness of gender stereotypes and inequality requires a brave leap of faith.

*Names changed

Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.