Working at a startup (like any other company) has its pros and cons, but to women, some stereotypes associated with startups may make them appear less desirable than established firms. Examples of such stereotypes include long hours and instability. According to a Tiger Recruitment by YouGov study, just one percent of female job seekers aspire to work at a startup company.
However, when it comes to career progression, startups could have more to offer women than their corporate counterparts.
Ivy.ai’s Director of Human Resources, Marcy Fife, has worked at several startups and small firms, and attributes her preference for startups to greater career opportunity. Marcy joined Ivy.ai in 2019 after working at a North Carolina-based tech startup and a life science consulting firm. With multiple degrees and certificates under her belt, Marcy was set up for success but working in a tight-knit, passionate environment catalyzed her career progression.
Stuck in the Middle
Women working at larger firms frequently find themselves stuck in middle management positions.
One factor that makes progression past middle management challenging for women is that they may have a harder time self-promoting than men. An essential tool for getting ahead (whether in title or salary), women overwhelmingly downplay their accomplishments and skill sets, leading to long-term consequences. By not advocating for themselves, women often get left behind while their male counterparts who speak up forge ahead with stretch assignments and career advances. This is a common theme in Marcy’s discussions with female coworkers.
“We have no problem advocating for our coworkers, both male and female, but we always talk about how hard it is for us to advocate for ourselves.”
A survey on women and their views on self-promotion found that:
- 25% of women would rather visit the dentist than talk about themselves in public
- 43% of women would rather go a week without social media than talk about themselves in public
- 50% of women would rather do errands in the rain than talk about themselves in front of strangers
What’s more, the research found that women who self-promote at the same level as their male peers are viewed as bossy and loud. Talk about being stuck between a rock and hard place!
While working at a startup won’t necessarily change the mindset of certain managers and colleagues, the typical startup culture inherently arms women with tools to advance.
In a large, established corporation, employees often feel like a small cog in a big machine. In these companies, they are hired for one role where they remain siloed, rarely getting the opportunity to broaden their skillsets. At a startup, where funds can be limited, employees are hired to fill a variety of needs. In this environment, women are encouraged to enhance their skill set by contributing in varying capacities. As Marcy states about Ivy.ai,
“As a late-stage startup, being motivated, flexible, and a self-starter is very important. We still wear many hats and are expected to juggle multiple tasks in different areas at once.”
With less rigid hierarchy, there is more exposure and accountability, leading to a decrease in the need for self-promotion. At larger corporations, it's easy to slip below the radar or get away with being a mediocre worker. In Marcy’s experience, at smaller firms, everyone’s contributions are not only vital, but extremely visible to leadership. This exposure makes it less challenging for women to prove their worth and subsequently get promoted or earn a raise without the need for self-promotion.
While the fear of instability is a valid concern in the startup world (90 percent of them fail), the skills built can heighten the appeal of a job applicant to future employers. A woman who works at a startup brings all the various skills and project experience she acquired to her next role while broadening the range of positions for which she qualifies.
Family and Flexibility
Another factor that often prevents women from advancing in their careers is family obligations. Prior to the Covid pandemic, the majority of mothers in the U.S. held full-time jobs and many of them were their family’s breadwinners. Leaving the workforce to care for children isn’t always an option, nor is it a preference. However, because outsourcing childcare can cost nearly one parent’s net salary and women on average perform more household duties than men, women may find themselves taking jobs that offer flexible work arrangements or require less hours, while sacrificing pay and title. Unfortunately, the work culture in the U.S. has historically favored those who work long hours in the office to the point of near burnout.
According to a FlexJobs survey, a third of women polled were forced to take a career break after having children due to lack of workplace flexibility. And of those women, 70 percent found it difficult to re-enter the workforce after taking time off. MarketWatch found that after calculating lost wages, lost retirement and lost social security contributions, as well as future wage growth, a working woman who takes a three-year break on a $50,000 annual salary could end up losing $500,000 over the course of her career.
So how can these setbacks be remedied by working at a startup? It should be noted that many startups are fast-paced and in their early stages, requiring long days and hard work due to limited funding. However, while most industries have gone remote due to the Covid pandemic, startups have long supported flexible workplace dynamics. It’s very common in the startup world to have remote workers without set office hours. From a human resources perspective, Marcy says there are many benefits to having a flexible workplace.
“Flexible work schedules and working from home allow for a better work-life balance for employees. Employees can work from a location of their choosing, as well as at a time when they feel most productive. This flexibility enables companies to hire people located anywhere in the world, leading to a more skilled and diverse talent pool.”
For working moms who must manage school drop-offs and pickups, calling out of work to stay home with a sick child, or even deciding between unpaid maternity leave and bringing an infant to a daycare center, flexible work arrangements are a godsend. Workplace flexibility allows women to schedule their day to meet their personal and professional demands, not to mention the potential, in some cases, to eliminate a long and stressful commute.
Currently working from home, Marcy is saving nearly two hours in commute time! Having this extra time, as well as the flexibility to adjust her workday, has led to her son’s involvement in more extracurricular activities. In the past, it was difficult to make it home in time to bring him to early evening classes.
At Ivy.ai, we’re fortunate to have a flexible workplace and because of this, Marcy was mostly unaffected by the Covid pandemic and consequent closures. At the start of the pandemic, when searching for a Covid-conscious caregiver, Marcy was able to flex her hours until she found childcare. Working for a startup, she says, allowed her to do this seamlessly since there is less corporate red tape and rigid scheduling.
While she acknowledges that the technology industry is male-dominated, Marcy says she has always had an interest in tech startups. She feels privileged to be not only a female in leadership, but in HR where she has the ability to shape the culture and hiring practices at Ivy.ai. She strives to ensure an inclusive and diverse workplace and advocate for the career progression of her female peers.