Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

What’s not so cool about India’s start-ups

The new breed of companies may be hubs of fun and innovation, but rampant sexism shows old habits die hard

It is a typical high-stress day in a Bengaluru start-up where code is breaking and check-ins are late. In an open-plan office free of cubicles, young people—mostly young men—lean over their keyboards and fret over their monitors. A young woman patiently waits for her colleague to check in his code to the server. He was supposed to do it two hours ago. The last time she went to ask him, he refused to acknowledge her at all—no nod, no eye contact, not even a single word.

Now, she is running out of time and needs him to cooperate. She calls out his name from three chairs away and asks, “Can you check in the code? Now?"

“Shush," says the young man.

People laugh, other women included. Earlier in the day, the young woman had been called aggressive, outspoken, too forthright. The same young man had made a joke about her age and intelligence. She had brushed it off with inaudible words.

“This isn’t funny," presses the young woman.

The young man swivels dramatically, turns to the young woman, puts his finger on his lips and asks her to shush again.

More laughter. The young woman complains to her team lead, who is standing by her shoulder. He’s laughing too. He pats her on the back and tells her not to take it too seriously.

She remains distraught for days, but at the end of her mulling and despite support from female friends, decides not to make a formal complaint. She cannot afford to lose her job or further antagonize her male colleagues. She decides the episode isn’t a clear case of sexual harassment.

Besides, all board members and the entire array of senior management in the company are male. The young man is a valued programmer, having won many awards. She resolves to apply for other jobs and continues with her work. The shush has worked.

Thick skin

In a country where one of the highest rated non-fiction TV programmes in 2015 was a comedy show that faithfully generated laughter on misogynistic themes and objectification of women, it is no surprise that even in the urban-cool landscape of India’s start-ups, women themselves remain confused about what they should deem offensive.

Surely, if so many people can laugh it off, there must be something wrong with them if they stand up and object to the inherent sexism in words, tone and body language.

Indian popular culture’s another multicoloured and loud representative, the quintessential saas-bahu saga, has been perpetuating the myth of the accommodating and thick-skinned heroine for a long time. In this social ecosystem, a woman thirsty with ambition thrives not by asking if the glass is half full or half empty, but by sipping on leftovers of male privilege.

A quick look at some statistics proves the point. In 2015, Yourstory, a platform for stories related to start-ups and entrepreneurs, in partnership with Mattermark, a start-up that mines and crunches public Internet data, released a list of India’s top 100 start-ups based on growth, revenue and funding. Not a single woman figured as a founder in the top 10 start-ups.

In the next 10, one woman’s name makes an appearance at the 18th position. There are a total of 208 male co-founders in the top 100 start-ups—and 16 female co-founders.

According to another finding released by Yourstory, only 68 of 307 start-ups that raised funding in the first quarter of 2016 had a female co-founder. Of these, only nine had a sole female founder.

What do these women have to say to other women aspiring to take their position or even better them? The messages, both overt and implicit, are firmly centred around positivity. If they can do it, others can do it too. Sexism is discussed but with the caveat that too much focus on it could derail their own enthusiasm. Feminism is sidestepped. Caste politics are not even mentioned.

Zainab Bawa, co-founder of HasGeek, a platform for technology events and hangouts, says, “In India, social conscience is external to you. It is not a part of who you are. There is definitely more civil rights awareness in Silicon Valley. I wonder what it would take to create this awareness here. I have been trying to understand why there was a mass awakening during the 2012 Delhi rape case. Why don’t we see such mass movements more often? Do we, as a society, react only to horror? I, myself, would like to know why we sideline everyday incidents of sexist behaviour."

In this business milieu, issues of personal discrimination are not linked to larger abuses of power. Here, millennial activism is pitched against coolitude and the duty to laugh away everyday sexism. The right to be angry, confrontational and vocal is taken away silently, most often with a smirk. In this zero-sum game of presenting women as rising stars in the start-up scene, there can only be one winner: success stories of a handful of women or disgruntled noises from those that have lurked behind, gasping for breath at mid-management level. It is an easy guess which side wins.

Skewed optimism

At software industry body Nasscom’s India Leadership Forum 2016, an all-women panel was assembled to discuss “Closing Technology’s Gender Gap". Of the six women on the panel, not one represented female leaders in the Indian tech industry. Four of them were not even Indian.

Anu Madgavkar from McKinsey Global Institute started with an optimistic take on the number of women in the IT and BPO sector—34%, according to a study carried out by the institute. Later, a passing mention was made, without any numbers, of how female leadership was still lagging behind in upper management and boardrooms.

Most speakers at the forum were men from large- and medium-sized multinational companies. In this context, Nasscom’s initiatives to support start-ups and women reek of tokenism, where only the most privileged class of people are invited to speak, while others must listen starry-eyed at the bright side of the tech world.

At Nasscom itself, the three office-bearers of the executive council are all men. Though four women are members of the executive council, there are no representatives from tech start-ups.

It is common knowledge within the tech community that start-ups led by women find it difficult to get funding.

On the one hand, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, successful venture capitalist Vani Kola says that she does not look for female entrepreneurs while making investment decisions because that would be impossible and unfair to the job she does.

On the other hand, a report by Kstart, an initiative she heads to encourage more women in start-up leadership, states that a change in the start-up landscape can only be brought about by “re-organization of culture & corporate values that emphasize female leadership". This reorganization of culture needs more engagement than declarations of encouraging diversity.

Meena Ganesh, co-founder of healthcare start-up Portea, the only woman to appear as a co-founder in the top 20 start-ups, says she has ambiguous feelings about where the start-up ecosystem fails in supporting women entrepreneurs.

“Even if Nasscom or TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) or IIM-B (Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore) hold events that encourage women entrepreneurs, there are not enough women pitching their ideas. So, the support has to come at the pre-genesis level. Women need to be comfortable with the idea of risk and failure. It’s OK to start, to fail, to try again, even to go back to a job. There is a need to make women confident about these aspects," she says.

The thought is echoed by Shirin Shinde, the 26-year-old co-founder of healthcare start-up PSTakeCare, who says women are pushed towards secure avenues at a young age. “Whether it is coming home on time or picking up a job over starting a business, society has ingrained it in women to be wary of risks. Add to it the pressure of marrying and settling down between the ages 25 and 27. Starting a business would be nearly impossible if a woman is weighed down by these insecurities handed down by society," she says.

She adds that she had the complete support of her family and friends, but there were many around her who constantly questioned her choice of leaving a good job and starting out on her own.

“As a society, we have a long way to go in understanding and accepting that gender diversity at the leadership level is good for business itself," she says. “The scenario is not all bleak, but I do understand that women have additional pressures. All my women friends preferred to take up jobs to starting out on their own."

Drowned voices

Neil Gajera, who has worked at several start-ups and has also co-founded one, says that sexism is so pervasive, it rarely raises eyebrows. “Even if things are not said in the open, I have seen several instances of discriminatory behaviour," he says. “For example, I have seen men uncomfortable about discussing technology with a woman CTO or around women at the negotiating table."

Gajera says what vexes him the most is the general attitude that this sort of behaviour is normal. “On the online start-up forum where I called out a member who posted sexist jokes, what shocked me was not that a member had posted such entries, but that other people had joined in to agree and laugh along with him."

Bawa of HasGeek says she does not know of many women who are ready to openly discuss issues of structural inequality in the start-up and technology space.

“Ultimately, you fall into a spot where you fulfil the expectations of the system," she says. “Just see how women are told that they can be good front-end designers because they are intuitive. How non-intuitive are men? Then again, women are told they are good at multi-tasking. This is what I call essentializing gender. Do you know what it is to run a company and handle a kid? Do you know that multi-tasking is actually brain-damaging? It’s because women are given certain roles that people assume that they are born that way."

Writer and journalist Gita Aravamudan, author of the book Unbound: Indian Women @ Work, agrees: “A lot of women working both in the tech sector and start-ups have spoken to me of sexist attitudes as well as sexual harassment. This could come from bosses as well as colleagues. The start-up world is certainly not cool or woman-friendly. Women find it more difficult to get funding. They don’t have old girls’ networks. And quite often, they don’t have seed capital or family support in what is viewed as uncertain territory. There are some women entrepreneurs like Kiran Mazumdar and Meena Ganesh who have been spectacularly successful, and many, many others who have fallen along the way."

The way forward

Gajera says that it is not enough to have an official sexual harassment policy in place. At his online juice delivery start-up Juicemaker, he created and shared a “culture code" that explicitly discouraged sexist behaviour.

Portea’s Ganesh says that while large societal change takes its own pace, she would like women to take things in their own hands and address issues that investors might be worried about.

“There’s this elephant in the room. You might as well go ahead and talk about it. Even if potential investors don’t ask how you are going to balance your personal commitments with your start-up’s goals, tell them about your passion, your vision, your plan to organize your life around your start-up," she says.

Though she understands the need for women-only events, she would like women to come out of their comfort zone and attend mainstream events.

Bawa says she has been trying to initiate a support group at HasGeek. “It is important to have forums where women can gather and discuss about small and big issues they face. It would benefit start-ups to have such support groups where judgements are not passed and openness is fostered," she says.

But personal strategies will only work in tandem with awareness and action from industry leaders and the government. Organizations that back start-ups must do more than exhibit market-friendly versions of gender diversity, instead opening themselves to gauging the actual change in the everyday reality for women at all levels in start-ups.

The start-up community must stretch its vision and see beyond its solipsistic initiatives while questioning its own take on inclusivity. Most of all, industry leaders need to put their money where their mouths are and actions where their thoughts are. It’s time they have more skin in the game of gender equity.

Rashmi Patel is a freelance writer currently based in Melbourne. She regularly contributes to Indian and Australian publications. She can be found on twitter @rashmi_patel.

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