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Martha Burwell, one of the Catalyze Seattle organizers. (Photo via Martha Burwell)

We’ve seen the numbers on diversity in startups, and they’re not good. Less than one-fifth of startups that receive funding are led by women, and investors are more likely to invest in male-led ventures over female-led ventures.

Those numbers trickle down into startup workplaces, which tend to have very low percentages of women and other minorities.

Ruchika Tulshyan, one of the Catalyze Seattle organizers and a longtime business journalist. (Photo by Jama Abdirahman)

But even though we have plenty of facts and figures on the diversity problem, there is very little data on the reasons behind it. That leaves startups and other organizations that want to address the issue grasping at straws.

Two Seattle women have decided to take the data issue into their own hands with a project called Catalyze Seattle. The project recently published what’s believed to be the first, and only, study of gender in Seattle’s startup workplaces, and the researchers behind it say the data they collected can be helpful for young startups that want to build a more diverse company.

“If anything, we’ve discovered during this survey that — once we understand what’s happening — it’s very possible to make improvements. It’s not this theoretical, scary thing. It definitely takes some courage to start working on, but it’s possible,” researcher Martha Burwell said. Burwell is one of the project organizers, and also works with small businesses to help them become more inclusive.

Ruchika Tulshyan, a longtime business journalist who co-leads the project with Burwell, said that one of the key things startups can do is make diversity a priority from the get-go.

“We’re starting to see companies scramble because they realize, ‘oh no, we don’t have diversity built in.’ We’re hoping more startups, literally from the ground up, can build this. Because it’s to do with innovation, it’s to do with bottom line, it’s to do with building great companies. It’s not at all a charity thing that needs to be looked at at the last minute,” Tulshyan said.

While this first study focused on gender, those general rules can also apply to racial diversity, and the project hopes to do a similar survey on race soon.

Tulshyan and Burwell both became involved with gender equity after having a similar revelation: the way we normally think of addressing diversity isn’t working.

“So much of what existed was based on telling individual women what they were doing wrong and how to they needed to change their behavior to succeed in workplaces that weren’t always welcoming to them. But there wasn’t that much on the flip side of it, for helping organizations themselves improve the gender equity of the way that they run things,” Burwell said.

The pair decided to team up and organize a workshop for startup leaders to help them address diversity issues. But they soon realized there was almost no data to help guide them, a biting irony in a field that prides itself on being data-driven.

More than one-fourth of the study’s female respondents said the founding team of their startup was more than 50 percent female. (Catalyze Seattle graphic)

So, the pair teamed up with Seattle consulting firm Artemis Connection to launch their own independent survey and collect that data. Because they were asking respondents for sensitive information, they decided to keep the survey anonymous so that respondents would feel secure in answering honestly, even if it reflected badly on their company or superiors.

They received more than 300 responses from workers and founders at startups based in the Seattle area that had less than 250 employees. About 40 percent of the respondents were male and about 60 percent were female, with three percent identifying as non-binary or declining to say.

Although there was no way to verify each respondent’s identity, the majority of respondents were reached through the researchers’ personal networks or through partners like the Washington Technology Industry Association, Xconomy and Crosscut, giving them a certain amount of control over who was surveyed.

One of the trends Tulshyan and Burwell noticed in the data was something they described as the female founder effect: startups where women made up more than half of the founding team tended to have more diverse workforces.

Not only did these startups tend to have more female employees, they also tended to employ more people of color and parents than male-led startups did. It backs up the idea that having a more diverse founding team makes a startup more accommodating to women and other minorities.

Tulshyan saw an example of this trend first-hand when she was searching for a coworking space last year. As a new mother, she would need a private space to pump breast milk at work, but none of the spaces she toured had anything like that resource.

Just 3 percent of male respondents said the founding team of their startup was over 50 percent female. (Catalyze Seattle graphic)

A few weeks ago, she visited the Riveter, a new coworking space in Seattle founded by two women. There’s a private room by the front door for new mothers who need to breastfeed or pump breast milk.

Another huge component of building an inclusive workplace is thinking about culture, and particularly the unconscious biases that can make workplaces more hostile to women.

Trends in the survey data pointed towards two previously documented unconscious biases: the “prove it again” bias and the “tightrope” bias, both of which stem from work by workplace equity researcher Joan C. Williams.

The prove it again bias refers to the tendency we have to judge women on their accomplishments but judge men on their potential.  This could explain why the study found that women in Seattle’s startups tend to be older, more highly educated and have more experience than their male counterparts, and also explains why women founders face such difficulty getting funding.

The Tightrope Bias refers to the thin line women walk in the workplace, between being too feminine and thus not taken seriously and being too masculine and thus criticized for being aggressive or hard to work with.

“This is extra true in the startup world because founders have to be very outspoken, you have to be extremely confident because you’re pitching ideas, you’re asking people for money, you’re starting a brand new business,” Burwell said.  “A lot of women in the anecdotal data indicated that they faced that bias. They were criticized if they showed those leadership skills, and they weren’t promoted if they did not show those leadership skills.”

While these issues don’t have simple fixes, having the data to understand what’s really happening in the workplace is a huge step towards finding solutions.

Check out the Catalyze Seattle website for more data from the survey.

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