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'I get mansplained regularly': Do Berlin startups have a sexism problem?

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Floraidh Clement - [email protected]
'I get mansplained regularly': Do Berlin startups have a sexism problem?
A startup team meeting. Photo: Depositphotos/AllaSerebrina

With a new startup founded every 20 minutes, Berlin boasts one of the world’s healthiest startup ecosystems. The capital hosts fertile ground for ambitious entrepreneurs to propel their ideas into world-changing products.


However, while the city innovates in its output of these products, data and anecdotal evidence suggests that the companies creating these products aren’t quite so pioneering – particularly when it comes to gender equality.

After Berlin’s state government voted to make International Women’s Day a bank holiday this year, there has never been a more poignant time to consider how women in the city are navigating what many of them arrive here for; the startup scene.

A string of stereotypes

For some women, their experiences of sexism in the city’s startup scene have been limited to offhand comments reaffirming tired gender tropes. In Jenny’s view, these comments were irritating, but never serious enough to escalate.

“It’s mostly been small things rather than ‘report to HR’ sexism,” Jenny, 33, from the UK, tells The Local.  Things like: ‘you don’t need to stay here late, you’re a mum’ when debugging a critical issue – that’s “coming from a dad,” she adds.

Claudia, 28, from Austria, experienced the same interactions on a daily basis. Like Jenny, she believes the comments are not serious enough to consider looking for another new job, but still finds them tiring.

“I’m the only woman on a team of eight developers, and I still have my role ‘mansplained’ to me regularly,” she says. “Like, I have the same qualifications as you, the same background…they’ll talk slowly and always double check that I know what I’m doing”.

Claudia adds that she doesn’t necessarily think these actions are intended maliciously, but wonders if developers simply aren’t used to having female colleagues around them.

“Of course, there’s only one solution to that – hire more women!”

Graph produced for The Local by Statista. 

The figures paint a picture of gender inequality remaining rife. The European Startup Report 2017 found that every third executive at a German startup is a woman, implying a major imbalance of women and men working in startups.

The report also found that there was a notable pay gap; while women on average earn €40,087 per year, men said they earn €44,309. Of the startups founded every 20 minutes in Berlin, only 15.38% are founded by women, while the 68% of the women working in the scene claim to have experienced sexism, most commonly through sexist jokes.

Unfortunately, these jokes can taken a more direct form. After moving to Berlin from the US, Danielle, 25, was shocked by just how deeply sexism was ingrained into her startup’s company culture.

“Comments can be anything from asking in front of the entire company if a woman is pregnant, assuming that any doctor’s appointment a woman has to go to is at the ‘lady doctor, or calling someone a ‘frigid bitch’,” she says.

“The worst I’ve heard was at a company gathering at the office, where a female colleague said that the head of sales told her during her interview that he would never hire a woman for a sales position because ‘women can’t do sales’”.

Behind the wage gap

Sexism has also manifested through larger, more structural issues in startups. In particular, discrepancies in salaries between men and women came up in numerous stories. This was a particularly severe issue for Anna, 32, from the US.

"Many females in a department of 50+ people were being underpaid compared to their male counterparts – even those even with a lesser position or experience,” she tells The Local. “It took one manager to fight the ‘higher ups’ to correct this.

“The fact that the pay gap even existed was a problem and it’s even worse that it was a fight to correct."

Carolin, 23, from Germany, also experienced discrepancies in pay, although unlike Anna’s story, nothing was actioned to rectify the problem.

“We started asking our male colleagues how much they were earning and discovered most were making at least a little more than we were,” she says.  “But when we told HR, they said there was a strict policy on gender pay and that there couldn’t be an issue. Our payslips were clear as day, but nobody wanted to hear it.”

This led to Carolin choosing to leave the company, which means she has now carved out her own successful freelance career.

“Refusal to listen to the real concerns of women like myself will mean that more of us do the same,” Carolin adds.  “I’m personally much happier now I know that my work is actually valued by my clients regardless of being a woman.”

Graph produced for The Local by Statista. 

However, not everyone has had the same experience with sexism in their startup. Contrastingly, some women found that being the only women in their department provided them with an opportunity to develop themselves. This was certainly the truth for Luisa, who found a welcoming atmosphere to thrive on her all-male team.

“I’m the only woman working with 11 men, making mobile games together,” she says. “Nobody in the games industry has ever made a sexist remark or action…they’ve empowered me to reach my full potential in my feminine approach and have helped me become the woman I am today; a force to be reckoned with in my field.”

Vanessa, from the US, echoed this sentiment, adding that while she agreed that Berlin’s startup scene had a gender imbalance problem, it didn’t necessarily hold her back from succeeding her full potential.

“If anything, it reminded me that women really can do anything men can do,” she says. “That’s a feminist thing in itself. Of course Berlin has its problems with gender balance – particularly in tech – and is definitely dominated by men, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t find our way of making it work and getting the job done regardless.”

Slowly but surely: progress being made

Fortunately, some progress is being made. Berlin startups are recognizing potential problems and attempting to tackle them, from changing their hiring practices to hosting talks from leading women in their fields to be ambitious and strive for success.

The CEO of Linda’s company initiated a monthly talk by successful women to encourage exactly that. She is positive that more initiatives like these would be helpful for more startups in the city.

“Should this be rolled out across Berlin? Definitely – I feel like women need to see other women pushing the boundaries to give them ideas and inspire them to be more proactive in taking control of their careers,” Linda tells The Local.

But for some women, their experiences in Berlin’s male-dominated startups were the driving force behind starting their own projects. Queen of the Neighbourhood is an EU-funded feminist platform allowing women to search for women-owned businesses, create safe working spaces and create better working conditions.

Founders Iulia Mitzner, 35 from Austria, and Rahel Wollenberger, 34 from Berlin, were inspired to create the project following their own experiences of feeling unwelcome in the startup scene, as well as filling a gap in the market for projects which served women’s communities.

Iulia mentioned one particular example of sexism in a job interview which spurred her on further to kickstart her own platform.

“I once went to a job interview at a startup where the guy took apart my entire CV as though it was a lie,” she explains. “The entire thing was really confusing, as I have never experienced anything like it before and the previous interview round with a different recruiter went really well.

“He topped the entire situation off when he asked what my partner does as a job. I had already handed in trial work as well and the entire team was really happy with it. A lot of women I spoke to have had similar experiences.

She and Rahel had also noted a lack of digital representation of women, and wanted to actively tackle this with their own startup.

“I realized that I had often brought together people for different projects and at some point I realized that they were all women,” says Iulia. “I didn’t see them represented anywhere as a whole so I had the idea to create a digital home for them and make them even more visible…I think the numbers speak for themselves.”

Two women congratulating each other at a start-up. Photo: DPA

Is this a Berlin specific problem?

But why does Berlin in particular have this problem with sexism? Danielle considers it consequential of companies with many younger, less experienced senior management, who aren’t necessarily trained in dealing with issues of equality and diversity in the workplace.

“It’s very difficult for a startups but it’s also very difficult to have everyone in board, from top to bottom, in creating a healthy, inclusive and supportive culture. I think one of the biggest issues is that the C-Level at my company doesn’t have any management experience, so they are overworked in their departments and trying to manage a company”.

However, Claudia believes that the problem is not with Berlin, but with Germany more generally.

“I’ve worked in Hamburg and Munich for new, small companies in the similar position and faced the same discrimination,” she says. “It makes sense, since studies have actually shown that German startup culture is more sexist than in other countries, so Berlin isn’t the problem…it just so happens that Berlin is where most of the startups in Germany are, so naturally the spotlight should be here.”

A male view

The men in Berlin’s startup scene can see that there’s a problem. Nathan, 26, from the UK, echoes Claudia’s belief that the responsibility should ultimately fall on management to ensure companies are getting gender diversity right.

“As men in the workplace, we should be trying to make things better by making a welcoming environment for women, treating them no differently to our other colleagues...but it falls on C-Levels to improve hiring practices, we can only make it more comfortable on a day-to-day basis”

Mohammed, 28, from Egypt, is on his company’s Diversity and Inclusion working group, which has pushed through on numerous progressive initiatives, including publishing gender divides on roles and producing the first Equality and Diversity statement. He also recognises that the gender divide is real, particularly in software and IT.

“In a team of 8-10 software developers, you can find one or two female developers only. It’s the case also in most of the companies that I know about where my friends work.”

However, he believes hiring quotas to rectify the issue offer both benefits and drawback for encouraging gender equality.

“In a good way, it pushes companies to have more diversity and also encourages more female developers to apply as they have a pretty good chance to get in. The drawback is that sometimes companies try to fill the quota and don’t stress much on skills or qualifications”.

Quotas aren’t necessarily the most effective way of tackling gender inequality in the workplace - as is shown here in Germany. Following political pressure to push for greater gender equality, nationwide efforts to implement a so-called “women’s quota” have apparently been unsuccessful.

According to a 2017 report, management boards of the country’s largest companies continue to be headed broadly by men, who make up 76% of executive bodies.

The evidence suggests there is still some way to go. While not every woman has faced sexism in their startup, the fact that many clearly do continue to bear the brunt of inequality should be enough to encourage companies to consider what they can do to empower all of their employees equally.

The impact would be beneficial to both the startup and its employees; a study on business and diversity by McKinsey & Company found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. The Hays Gender Report 2017 also found that the implementation of a gender equality policy in the workplace can lead to increases positivity, allows a focus on employee self-promotion and encourages female ambition.

For those exact reasons, those leading their workforce in Berlin’s startup scene must commit to doing better. Innovation should begin from within the ranks of the company itself, and that includes creating a safe, inclusive and encouraging working environment for women to thrive within. No number of work parties, free beers or pool tables can replace it.

Names have been changed to protect identities.


Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2019/03/15 16:57
You're lucky to have a job. Girls can't code. I've seen it.

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