Hire women in tech: change startup culture

hire more women in tech - changing startup culture

“I’ve gone to meetups and networking events that at times felt more like a frat party than a gathering of like-minded techies.”

June Sugiyama, Director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation. 


The call for International Women’s Day 2018 was “to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.” As tech recruiters, we are responsible for making sure our recruiting and hiring practices are gender-neutral. So we asked 74 women what recruiters and HR teams can do to increase the number of women working in tech.

Take a look at what they had to say. An issue that came up again and again was the culture of startups and tech companies.

56.5% of those we asked believe women are put off starting a career in tech because of the tech culture.

how to hire more women in tech
How women think startups’ culture needs to change

In this blog post, you will discover:

  • What’s wrong with startup culture
  • Why it’s hard to hire women if your tech teams aren’t balanced
  • What startups can do to attract and engage more female candidates
  • How startups can balance the gender of their tech teams
    • make female employees “visible”
    • minimise the perception of “bro” culture
    • promote family-friendly policies

What’s wrong with startup culture?

A discriminatory work environment

Until recently, Silicon Valley in real life had a tendency to mirror Silicon Valley on TV: full of young white men with similar backgrounds and life experiences. There’s nothing like the thought of spending time in a London basement with Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd to put a woman off a career in tech!

But if they did manage to avoid TV, make it through university and into a startup, women often experienced a macho culture with pay inequality, preconceived expectations and even sexual harassment. 

 women often experienced a macho culture with pay inequality, preconceived expectations and even sexual harassment


In 2014, Kieran Snyder interviewed 716 women who decided to leave the tech industry after an average of just seven years. The vast majority said that their decision came down to a discriminatory work environment.

In NSF-funded researchNadya Fouad surveyed 5,300 women who had earned engineering degrees (of all types) over the last 50 years. 38% were no longer working as engineers. Fouad summarised her findings on why they leave with “It’s the climate, stupid!”

Several developers we interviewed had faced discrimination either at work or whilst studying at university.  

There should be more awareness of this subject, more support, and more empathy between the women in the field.

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


Women don’t want to be the first 

Being one of only a handful of girls to study computer science at school or one of three women in a startup’s tech team of 30 can put female candidates off.


Some women don’t want to be in a minority. It’s a bit challenging when you work in a team of 10 men and you’re the only woman; it can get a bit frustrating.

  Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


It’s understandably hard to convince women that a startup’s culture isn’t masculine when they’re the first female hire! As a result, the first hires are often the hardest. Once a team is more balanced it becomes exponentially easier to bring women on board.

The tech industry still has a way to go before it is gender equal. But there are simple things startups can do right now to attract, engage and retain more female IT specialists.


It’s hard to be the only female in the room. And it’s easy to feel like the odd-man-out

 Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


We asked the industry: How can startups change their culture to hire more women?


1. Make female employees “visible”

Just as our respondents believe women in tech need to be more visible at schools and universities, they also need to be more visible in companies. Women don’t want to be the “first Senior Technical Engineer”. They’re much more likely to apply for and accept a role if there are women in the company’s senior leadership team.


It always make me feel better when I’m not the only girl in the team and see female experts or managers.

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


To increase the visibility of female employees, you could:
  • Invite women in leadership positions to publish blog posts and articles, set up and publish events, and be participate in interviews 
  • Think about setting up a gender-balanced diversity board and actively publish their initiatives on the company website and social media channels
  • Make a conscious effort to ensure marketing materials are gender-balanced. (That means photos need to include women, but it also means limiting the number of photos that show teams drinking beer on a terrace!)
  • Actively publicise all the great work you’re now doing to support the next generation of female developers 

2. Minimise the perception of “bro culture”

57% felt that companies need to do more to minimise startups’ “masculine” culture of startups. Several respondents had faced discrimination or harassment, and both recruiters and developers believe startup culture can put women off from applying for a job.  

Easing up on the competitive work environment may help.

 Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


I think many tech companies have a pizza & beer culture and brag about these goodies. 

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


Be sensitive about any sexist comments/jokes/behaviours and make clear that they will not be tolerated. Make sure everybody feels safe regardless of their sex, ethnicity, orientation, etc.

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


The tech world is known for its “work hard, play hard” culture. Football tables, games consoles and free post-work beers or in-house bars are understandably more appealing to young, male employees who don’t have to rush home after work to look after children. And encouraging workers to relieve stress by “playing hard” only reinforces a toxic masculine culture.

Startups have the opportunity to create a culture from scratch. And one of the massive benefits of being small and agile is that the culture is easier to change.  

8 easy steps you could take to change startup culture:

  • Take complaints by female employees seriously. Fix flirty comments rather than explaining them away with phrases such as “that’s just the way it is around here”
  • Enforce a fair, indiscriminate and transparent company culture, so it’s easy to hold employees accountable
  • Use the same adjectives for women and men in performance reviews
  • Hold all employees to the same standards when giving bonuses and pay rises
  • Make sure social activities don’t only revolve around sports or drinking, and remove the perception that employees need to join in or be left behind
  • Work closely with HR departments and empower them to speak up on behalf of employees.
  • Make female employees “visible” (see above!) and make a conscious effort to promote women into leadership positions
  • Write to female employees who’ve left the company and ask them to be honest about what it was like to work there, why they left and what they would change. You could also ask current female employees the same questions

3. Prioritise and promote benefits that appeal to women

76% of the developers we interviewed believe startups do not do enough to prioritize and actively promote family-friendly policies.

Prioritise and promote benefits that appeal to womenClearly setting out the company’s family-friendly policies and including them on the careers website, in all job descriptions and discussing them openly in interviews are actions that companies can take immediately. And if you don’t have flexible working, the opportunity to work part-time or remotely, or fair maternity and paternity policies, make it a priority in 2018.


I think that they should offer more support to mothers, with extra maternity leave and facilities.

 Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


Offer better compensation for families. Offer help with tasks and online tests.

 Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


There are certain aspects of jobs that the tech industry could focus on if they’d like to appeal to more women. For instance, a woman with children is probably going to value flexibility and the option to work from home.

 Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


4. “Show, don’t tell”

The tech industry doesn’t yet have pay equality. This could be partly because women are less likely to negotiate for higher salaries or push for bonuses.


Women get paid less because we usually ask for less.

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


There are arguments for and against publishing employees’ pay and bonuses. So if total pay transparency is too big a leap, publishing annual reports highlighting what you’re doing to combat the gender pay gap will demonstrate to women that you care about the issue and are prepared to do something about it.


They know what the salaries are, so if a woman states she wants significantly less money than what male candidates ask for, they should suggest she can ask for more.

Nederlia research: How to hire women in tech


If your startup makes a real effort to ensure equal pay, then shout it from the rooftops! You could mention it in your diversity statement, publish the results and discuss it in interviews.


Next up: Improving the candidate experience and hiring process for women.



We’ve created a free guide to help startups hire more women in tech.

From startup culture and candidate experience to supporting the next generation, there are lots of simple steps you can take to attract, engage and retain more female candidates.