Sexism in startups will reduce if we speak about it

The shocking truth about the startup community in India is that clannish, sexist and egoistic men predominantly run it. As a result, India is regarded as a difficult country for high-potential women entrepreneurs to succeed, ranking a low 70 among 77 countries covered in the 2015 Female Entrepreneurship Index. 2. The gender diversity ratio remains skewed. 3. Women are made to believe that sexism is normal.

In this month’s Feminist Rani I was joined by Rashmi Bansal (renowned author), Priyanka Agarwal (CEO, Wishberry), and Ruchita Dar Shah, (Founder, First Mom’s Club), to discuss sexism in startups.

Running a tech-based company (which is usually seen as a man’s area of expertise) was a challenge for Priyanka, especially in the initial days. The 31-year-old Wharton graduate faced discrimination when Wishberry was looking for investors because of her gender. “As a non-tech woman running a tech-based company, I was asked by an angel investor for a discount since the company was run by women! On another occasion, a female partner at Impact Fund said she loved the idea and would’ve invested in Wishberry in a heartbeat, if the founders were men!” She added: “Women entrepreneurs are constantly perceived as people with misplaced priorities, and liabilities with mixed up social priorities and conventions.”

But the enterprising Marwari didn’t back down. “We kept looking for investors who believed in our vision. We found our lead investor, Rajan Anandan, who thinks that women entrepreneurs are more creative with running a business and efficient with handling capital.” Wishberry went on to raise Rs 4 crores in 2015 from stalwart investors like Sharad Sharma, Shankar Mahadevan, Vikramaditya Motwane and Mohandas Pai, taking the company’s valuation to around Rs. 15 crores.

The truth is that women have to be encouraged to speak up about sexual harassment.

“The key is to never give up,” the young entrepreneur says.  Ruchita faced a similar problem when she founded First Mom’s Club. “I would be asked whether my husband was a partner and if he was going to join our meetings!” Today her company has over 1 lakh strong community of moms across social media platforms and their own native app, she’s proven her detractors wrong.  In the past few months, we’ve heard about the rising number of sexual harassment cases against men like Phaneesh Murthy, Arunabh Kumar or Suparn Pandey. Rashmi recently spoke out against unwarranted advances made by serial entrepreneur. Although he denied all allegations, Rashmi received support online.

The truth is that women have to be encouraged to speak up about sexual harassment. Instead of publicly shaming the perpetrator, the victim of unwarranted sexual advances is questioned. The panelists pointed out that very often it is women who bring each other down. Rashmi added that we also need checks and balances. “Venture capitalists play a big role in shaping the culture of startups. Investors should check the background of startup owners. HR should create awareness and gender sensitizations laws. Every startup should comply with Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) rules and set up an internal complaints committee.”

Once a sexual harassment incident becomes public, it is important for startup founders to deal with the matter maturely and cooperate with any investigation against the accused. An apology is not enough – even though in India, women don’t even get that. These startling biases in this patriarchal eco-system have to end. This macho culture has to end. As a society we have to stop making sexism in startups a taboo subject and have it become mainstream conversation. We don’t need denials. We don’t need apologies. We need affirmative action.