Entrepreneurs have hundreds of ways to say ‘you don’t belong here’. Part 1

Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. Entrepreneurs have hundreds of ways to say ‘you don’t belong here’. By ‘you’ I mean women. And by ‘here’ I mean startup land.

‘How can we attract more female founders!?’ is the cry you can hear, if you listen very closely, within any number of tech accelerators, VC firms and co-working spaces. And trust me, I believe the people that make these statements feel passionately about changing the way the startup industry behaves. The numbers are criminal. In 2016, women got just 2.19% of venture capital funding. (I am not even going to dig deeper into those numbers and tell you what the statistics look like if you are a women of colour, because it is shocking) From a simple PR perspective, the lack of women founders and CEOs in the startup and tech space is a stain on the industry. And many people are starting to wake up to that stain and are working hard to remove it.

However, before we can find a solution to the problem, we need to find its root cause. And those root causes tend to be embedded in revered and established internal cultures. This blog is the first in a series at Girl, Disrupted that looks at the semantics, behaviors, and procedures that happen every day in startup land, which contribute to an unspoken rule that the only real entrepreneurs are the ones that were born with a Y chromosome.

When ‘no dress code’ is actually a dress code

I don’t wear heels. I am not making some sort of feminist statement. I look with envy at women who can wear pretty shoes on the end of dainty feet. (I have wide feet with tiny piggy toes – they could have been stunt feet on The Hobbit). I have trouble wearing heels. They don’t fit correctly. I can’t walk in them. (and I walk everywhere).

I long time, another city and a few dress sizes ago, I had a pair of trusty Steve Madden platforms. I wore them all the time. When walking backwards down a set of stairs while taking to a PR woman at the launch of Sun Microsystem’s networked server I tripped in my Steve Maddens and ended up on the floor, with my dress practically over my head.

I stopped wearing heels.

I am constantly looking for flat shoes, that are comfortable and I can wear with dresses (brogues and flat ankle boots are my current go-to footwear). I don’t really wear that much makeup, and much to my mother’s disappointment, I never really went in for jewelry. So you may think it strange that I am about to go full on defending women who do. But stay with me.

My former employers were big about pushing ‘culture’. They were so proud of their version of internal culture that it was mentioned constantly at meetups, workshops and internal meetings by those at the top. One facet of this culture was ‘no dress codes’.

One of the partners made a big speech about this at an annual meeting. “We have no dress codes here” he said proudly. After all, we were entrepreneurs and founders who fled the strict corporate world where men had to wear ties and women were given instructions on how long or short their shirts could be.

So far so good, right? I agree. I hate dress codes. I would hate to work, and would never choose to work, at a company where I was told how to dress (please refer to the ‘heels’ story above). However,….

“We have no dress codes here” was not where that statement ended. “Just look,” the partner continued “at the messy t-shirts our CEO has worn to meetings with major European brands. Just look at the other partner’s trainers. Just look at my jeans.”

Construct that picture in your head. A person wearing a messy t-shirt, jeans, trainers. Who’s wearing that outfit? Honestly, tell me who you see? (answers on a post card please).

A man.

‘Yes, but…’ I can hear you all cry. ‘That’s not what he meant! That wasn’t his intention! Women can wear jeans and t-shirts and trainers if they want…’  Yes, they can. But for those of you who work in any business, startup or large multinational, have you ever seen a woman walk into a meeting wearing a messy t-shirt, jeans and trainers? Honestly. I have seen plenty of women eschew the business suit. But I have yet to see one who would choose to dress like a student at work and expect to get any respect.

Because that is just it. Men are automatically given respect and their authority is not questioned. Men can choose to throw off the sartorial representation of that authority. As with anything you throw out, privilege is something you need to own first in order to reject.

I interviewed over a thousand people, on camera, at my old job at Finextra. Around 90% of those interviews, interviews with people who worked at banks, at tech companies, and consultancies, were men. I’ve interviewed men who smell. Men who were so fat they barely fit in the chair, their shirt buttons straining at bellies overhanging their trousers. I’ve interviewed so many 40ish, grey haired, dark suited, white men that they tend to amalgamate into one generic John Doe, head of cash management at XYZ Bank.

The women, on the other hand, showed up wearing colours. Scarves, blouses and dresses that veered away from the blue or grey suit. They wore make up and jewelry. They combed their hair! Just those facts alone made them look better on camera. I was always happy when I had a woman in the chair opposite me when the camera started rolling.

Out of all of those men, only one – one – fussed about his hair prior to filming. Sitting down for a five minute interview without a second thought.

Every single one of the women I interviewed, grimaced and checked their lipstick, clearly not comfortable with appearing on video. ‘Oh, dear, I hate seeing myself on camera,’ they would say. ‘Oh, I do need to lose weight,’ they would complain. Some with real anxiety. I wanted to shout and scream at them ‘But you’re gorgeous – look at those earrings and those shoes! You’re global head of cash management at ABC Bank, for fucks sake!’

They were global heads and European managing directors and partners at consulting firms that charged clients a small fortune for their time. But they knew what I know and what almost every woman knows. If you are a woman, in a position of authority, you need to look the part, you need to signal to others that you deserve that authority. The heels and the makeup and the jewelry are protection – they are amour – they are empowerment for women. A woman walking into a room, wearing a messy t-shirt, jeans and trainers, would not be automatically awarded respect. They would have to work very hard to earn it. That is why men can shirk the collared shirt and take scissors to that tie – because their status allows them the privilege to do that.

By celebrating the wearing of trainers or t-shirts or – dare I say it, hoodies – as a sign that there is ‘no dress code’, you are in fact advocating one. You are maligning a wardrobe that many women wear in order to feel the empowerment that men take for granted – whether it be neat and tidy or the full-on five inch heels and bling. You are invalidating women’s experiences. You are stealing away a bit of the tools and tricks and talismans that women use, everyday, to navigate, survive and thrive in the ‘public sphere’ <==which you will all remember from your Feminism 101 classes at Uni 😉 Because you are creating a code (or un-code) based on a world that only gives validity to the experiences of people born with a Y chromosome.

We have ‘no dress code’. We wear messy t-shirts, jeans and trainers. If you need more than that to feel empowered than ‘you don’t belong here’.

Just a note – Honestly, no one ever made me feel insecure about what I wore at my old job and the person who made that speech is really rather lovely. What I am discussing here is when you create a culture based on your own experiences, you run the risk of invalidating experiences that are outside your own. And in startup land most of these cultures are designed and created by men – based on their experiences. 

Just one more note – The featured picture is of me interviewing Christophe Chazot, global head of innovation at HSBC (now on sabbatical) at Sibos in Boston. He did not smell and is also really rather lovely – just wanted you all to know that. However, this interview went slightly viral in our little FinTech Twitterverse. I am going to leave it to you all to guess as to why.


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