On Software Startup Culture

Software startups are pretty great right? Some of the greatest financial success stories of the last 30 years have been from people starting off in their garages, with purely the sweat of their own brow dragging them in to the rich list.

Almost universally though, these success stories and the public faces of startups today continue to be single/unmarried, white, able-bodied, cis men. This goes beyond a simple reflection of the demographics of the software industry. A study by CB Insights in 2010 showed that only 8% of startup founders in the US are women while they make up 27-29% of the general computing workforce. 1% of startup founders in the US are black compared to 12.4% of computer science graduates in 2006 (I've not been able to find racial employment demographics for the software industry in the US).

So how do startups come to be even more white and male than even the general software industry? And should they be as celebrated and glorified as they are in software culture?

I can only speak of my experience as a white trans woman working for a small ~6 employee startup but for me it comes down to risk and the way privilege mitigates those risks.

Financial Risk

Not to be class reductionist but social minorities are more likely to face poverty than their majority counterparts. Trying to balance the high cost of living in my city with my low income is hard enough without my extra health related costs like hormones, hair removal, blood tests and doctor's appointments. Several months I haven't quite made it to that next paycheck and have had to rely on the charity of friends. Many minorities have no such financial safety net, either because their peers and families are in the same boat or a lack of family acceptance. They can't afford to gamble their lives on the hope an investor sees the potential of their or their boss' idea.

Lack of Professionalism and Oversight

One of the things many privileged people see as a benefit of a small company/startup — the lack of professionalism — is a major disadvantage for minorities. Without formalised processes allowing anonymous complaint and some sort of oversight of the office culture, the work environment can quickly become toxic. Any protection has to come from external sources and when your government does not recognise you as a protected class, even those external sources are denied to you. I have faced repeated misogyny and friends of mine have suffered gross ableism in startups with nowhere to turn to for recourse.

"Rockstar" Culture

Related to the lack of professionalism is the trend for startups trying to appeal to the young, male population by promoting sexist, homophobic, hypermasculine "bro/rockstar" culture. Little is done to make the culture appealing to minorities, any objection leading to the tired old arguments like "learn to take a joke" etc. This obviously leads to a hostile environment with situations like this one at Kixeye earlier this year making the workplace actually unsafe for minorities.

What can we do about it?

Unfortunately I don't think there's much we can do about it for the moment other than keep fighting against the kyriarchy. In my opinion these issues are mostly reflective of societies oppression of minorities and these inherent startup risks can't be mitigated by minorities until the majority of our social problems are addressed.

What I think we can do instead it to stop glorifying the startup culture and stop shaming those of us who choose to work for big corporations. I don't care how much you think Microsoft is an evil corporate machine, don't judge a person of colour who works there because they knows their complaints of racism will get taken seriously. Don't judge the trans person who works at Google because their hormone treatment is covered under the company's health insurance. Don't judge the woman who takes the "boring" COBOL job because it pays enough to support her family.

Being able to choose a job that is "cool" is almost uniquely a symptom of the chronically privileged. See your doctor if symptoms persist.