There is a disconnect within the startup community. At the world’s most innovative companies, with their game-changing products and outwardly progressive politics, the inner working practices are all too often damagingly backwards. The most famous example of this in recent years has been the catalogue of errors within ride-hailing giant Uber. Travis Kalanick’s infamous mishandling of the company’s internal culture came to the fore shortly after its rise to the top, after numerous reports of sexual harassment and discrimination betrayed a toxic boys club that has become synonymous with Silicon Valley gender issues.
Uber isn’t alone. Its troubles have been emblematic of the problems that can arise in an industry overwhelmingly populated by men, and giants like Apple and Google also have problematic gender disparities in their workforces. A number of solutions have been touted. Better education and greater encouragement for young girls in STEM subjects will go some way to closing gaps, but it’s a long game. More women in leadership positions in tech companies will likely see change, but it’s difficult to quantify how quickly that change will come. For improvement in the short term, startups need to be proactive in developing a culture that is both inclusive and positive. And, importantly, they should do it as a matter of priority, rather than a firefighting measure when accusations of misconduct or discrimination come to the fore.
The most recent company to have its culture called into question is counter-culture magazine Vice. Beginning as a magazine covering the punk scene in Montreal in 1994, Vice has grown into one of the largest digital media businesses in the world, with multiple channels covering everything from politics to food. Multiple accounts of sexual misconduct rocked the company last week, and founders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi have publicly expressed their apologies for not doing enough to combat the boy’s club culture that has allowed these incidents to become so common. The company is to immediately implement a number of steps to improve its culture, such as new harassment reporting procedures and giving greater practical power to high-ranking women within the organisation.
Vice is making all the right noises in terms of cleaning up its act, but for a company of its size - with a post-money valuation of $5.7 billion - there is a resounding sense that it far too late to be creating a positive, inclusive working environment. The magazine is 23 years old and, though it has morphed into something far bigger and more expansive than it ever initially planned to be, there is absolutely no excuse for allowing a poisonous and discriminatory culture to develop over that long a period of time. Vice is further proof that proactivity is necessary. The company’s revenue is such that it could have afforded to address any potential internal issues head on, and avoided the embarrassing apology/action running order that has put so many high-profile companies in the news.
The failures of the management to instil a positive culture early on are only put into sharper focus at a company like Vice, which prides itself on being progressive, ‘woke’, and ultimately cool at all times. If a publication as outwardly socially aware as Vice can be rife with the same issues as more traditional sectors, it highlights the need for cultural work to be done early, with enough resources to make it a success. Just saying your company has a positive, inclusive culture is as useless as ignoring it altogether.
Ultimately, to avoid problems down the line and ensure that gender disparity becomes a thing of the past, startups (and larger companies) should be proactive in their culture-building. From the day a team grows above its core founders, there should be a plan in place to ensure that all talented employees are welcome, before the machine becomes too large to effectively change. Of course, the issue of sexual misconduct and gender disparity in areas like Silicon Valley will not be solved by one startup that consciously practices inclusivity. To do nothing, though, is to be complicit in the issue at large and, with a concerted effort, the startup community just might be able to make a difference.