Survey Reveals Seattle Startup Gender Gap as Techstars Struggles

Men and women in Seattle startups agree that men have more opportunities for advancement and typically fit in better with their company’s culture, according to a survey focused on gender of employees at smaller, growing companies.

That’s one of several findings of the survey, Catalyze Seattle, released Thursday, which takes in responses from 315 people working at Seattle companies with fewer than 250 employees, and provides one of the first detailed looks at gender in the local startup industry.

Meanwhile, Techstars Seattle, one of the pillars of that industry, has just one woman-led company in its current cohort of nine startups, despite offering slots to three. Chris DeVore, managing director of the startup accelerator, expressed frustration Thursday at the results of his and his organization’s efforts over the last two years to improve diversity. (More on that below.)

Covering pay, demographics, family status and child-rearing support, perceptions of company culture, and access to mentorship, the Catalyze Seattle survey provides a nuanced view of an issue that’s typically examined only at a national level, and often without much focus on barriers faced by women working at startups.

Martha Burwell

“We know that inequities are built into the very way we run companies and the way resources are distributed,” Martha Burwell, a gender equity consultant and one of the survey’s organizers, says via e-mail. “We also know that to make significant progress, we need to understand where those systemic barriers lie and how to reduce them.”

While work focused on this issue in business broadly has made some headway, “to date very little has been invested in understanding this same phenomenon in startups,” she adds.

Seattle, which regards itself as progressive and recently witnessed more than 100,000 people parading through the streets for the Womxn’s March, risks overlooking gender inequity. “We might start to think ‘gender inequity doesn’t happen here,’ when in fact, it does,” Burwell says.

Some key findings of the Catalyze Seattle survey:

—Women are paid at least 10 percent less than men, though two-thirds of women said they believe wages at their companies were fair, which the survey organizers suggest may indicate they are unaware of the pay gap.

—The survey found people of color at startups earned 15 percent less than their white colleagues.

—The average age of respondents is 37.5 years for women and 36.5 years for men, but more than half of the men are between 25 and 34 years old. Women are more evenly distributed across ages, though more than 40 percent of respondents are also in the 25-34 bracket, “key childbearing years,” as the survey organizers note, adding: “If startups were more accessible and inclusive to parents, we could significantly improve the numbers of women in the field.”

—More fathers of young children work in Seattle startups than mothers, and a third of men in the survey said their spouse was a stay-at-home parent. Meanwhile, 70 percent of women surveyed said their spouse works full time, and only 1 percent said they are married to a stay-at-home parent.

—Women averaged 13.5 years of experience compared to 12 years for men. Educational attainment was similar at the Bachelor’s degree level, but nearly 45 percent of women had a Master’s degree or above, versus 30 percent of men.

—While the survey did not reveal overall representation of women at startups, it did find that there are fewer women in executive, founding, and board director roles.

—Large majorities of women and men in the survey believe men have more opportunities for advancement in Seattle startups.

—55 percent of men and 61 percent of women disagree with the statement, “Entrepreneurship is a meritocracy. Anyone who works hard enough can succeed.”

—61 percent of women reported difficulty finding mentors, compared to 32 percent of men. Most women reported that the mentorship they have received came from men.

The Catalyze Seattle survey, conducted in December, includes lots of qualitative reports from respondents that help shed light on the conditions many women and underrepresented minorities face at startups. These tended to include regular “micro-aggressions,” rather than singular events of discrimination or hostility. “Incidences such as harassment, being regularly mistaken as lower-level staff, being disproportionately asked to do office ‘housework,’ not being taken seriously, being spoken over, and having their competency regularly questioned—especially during technical tasks—were all cited multiple times,” the survey authors write.

Burwell and her collaborator, Ruchika Tulshyan, a journalist and author of the 2015 book “The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality In The Workplace,” hope the study will help people realize the opportunity at startup companies to establish equitable business practices and cultures.

Once a company’s practices are ingrained, they are much harder to change, Burwell says. A startup that makes a commitment to equity could “create a ripple effect as it grows,” Burwell says. “In other words, there is an enormous opportunity to create positive change,” she says. “But to do that, we needed to gather more data on gender and startups, as very little exists.”

Techstars has taken a number of steps across its organization to attract a more diverse applicant pool and ultimately select more diverse founders for its startup accelerators, particularly since 2015. Last fall, it released a survey focusing on diversity at startup companies. DeVore, who took over the Seattle branch of the program in 2014, writes about the unsatisfying results of those efforts in a blog post Thursday titled Techstars Seattle Diversity Update: Failing, Frustrated + Asking for Help.


For the latest Techstars class, the accelerator’s eighth in Seattle, 43 percent of applicants had a woman as a co-founder or core team member, compared to 19 percent in 2016. The investment committee that makes the final selections has four women and six men. The committee offered three woman-led companies slots in the class—a 90-day intensive program of mentorship, business development, and other resources, including up to $120,000 investment, and the opportunity to pitch top-tier venture capital investors.

Only one woman-led company, Silene Biotech, accepted. Another opted for an alternative incubation program, and the third decided to spend more time working on business fundamentals, DeVore writes.

Techstars Seattle has “made no meaningful progress in attracting African-American and Latino founders,” DeVore writes.

DeVore says he is “committed to achieving different results” in the accelerator’s diversity recruiting. “I need to start doing some different things,” he adds, inviting anyone with ideas to contact him.

Photo credit: Seattle Womxn’s March by Cindy Shebley via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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