clock menu more-arrow no yes
Shutterstock

What I learned from being the only woman at a startup

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to move from a stuffy, old-school B2B magazine to a brand new journalism platform with a completely unique ethos and structure. I'd always had a fascination for both tech startups and digital content, so this seemed like the perfect fit.

It was a chance to do what I loved: commissioning interesting stories from new and unreported perspectives. I didn't stop to consider the fact that I would be the lone woman on an all-male team.

I never faced the overt sexism or harassment that many women at male-dominated startups suffer through. My experience was far more subtle and, in some ways, complicated.

Working around so many men made me hyper-aware of my female identity in a way I hadn't really been faced with before. And that awareness affected the way I acted, the stories I advocated for, and the way I thought about myself.

I stopped dressing up for work

One of the most fascinating psychological impacts I experienced from working only around men was in my own attitude toward myself, and what part of my self-worth was derived from my appearance.

Years ago my mother, who (due to either maturity or temperament) is a lot less concerned by matters of aesthetics than I am, asked me who I was trying to impress in my short skirts and glossy red nails. Was it for the benefit of the men around me? I responded something nondescript around it being to please myself, not a man. It turned out we were both wrong.

I worked hard because I loved my job, but also because the prospect of not knowing the answer to a question or making a public error filled me with dread

As soon as it became apparent that my male colleagues neither noticed nor cared how I looked, and I very rarely had any external meetings that required smart attire, my heels, blazers, and bodycon skirts started gathering dust at the back of my wardrobe.

Jeans and T-shirts became a staple. I'd put on makeup hastily at 6 pm if I had evening plans, and my hair was lucky to get towel-dried before leaving the house, let alone styled.

It wasn't that I lost pride in my appearance exactly; it just seemed like a waste of my mornings given the audience I would face. Without realizing it, I'd been plowing a huge amount of time, money, and energy into looking a certain way — for the benefit of the women around me.

Teenage years of female bitchiness, where your appearance determines the kind of person you are and the friendships you're entitled to, are difficult to shake. Without knowing it, I had spent my entire adult life perpetuating this pattern of female judgment. Shedding it was more liberating than I could ever have imagined.

I had to fight to get my co-workers to care about stories that affected women — but eventually I won

One of the stories that blew up during my time at the company was the debacle of the feminist internet versus Protein World. The food supplement company had bought advertising space on the London subway, demanding women assess the "beach-readiness" of their bodies in relation to a model in a skimpy bikini.

A Twitter junkie, I spotted the story as it first did the rounds on social media, before Protein World decided its misogyny was a great way to gain additional publicity and the national press was filled with op-eds on the issue.

My colleagues listened attentively while I explained the story, and I could feel an internal battle going on between their skepticism of its merits and their desire to avoid turning this into a drawn-out discussion about the media representation of women when we all had work to be getting on with. I could feel myself speaking louder and faster, trying to get across my passion for the topic.

"It's not really sexist, though, is it?" someone finally blurted out. "Men have to deal with topless Calvin Klein models on giant billboards that don't even vaguely resemble real people either."

I don't remember whether this comment came from a colleague or a bystander in our co-working space who overheard our conversation, but I know when I looked around I didn't see disagreement in anyone's face. I halfheartedly made my speech about the patriarchal constructs of female sexuality and convinced my colleagues it was worth pursuing.

It was a tough choice to follow through with the story. With a general election coming up in the UK, the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks high on the international agenda, and the Greek debt crisis on everyone's mind, it was hard to convince even myself that an advertisement for a food supplement was a crucial element of the news cycle, particularly when no one else on staff seemed to agree.

To my delight, these situations became rarer and eventually nonexistent. Where once this sort of story was subject to a 20-minute discussion and an unsure response, I slowly began to notice that the questioning and wary looks turned to eager nods.

My biggest enemy was my own mind

By far the most difficult hurdle to overcome when dealing with being the only woman in the office was the battle going on between the part of my brain that knew I was qualified to do the job and deserving of the respect of my colleagues, and the feelings that a patriarchal society has ingrained in me: that I should be grateful for the opportunities given to me by men, rather than proud of the skills I bring to the table.

As a result, the already slightly over-the-top work ethic instilled in me by a working single mother turned from a point of pride into a constant subconscious attempt at proving that I was — despite my gender — worthy of the job.

My desire to ensure I was always ahead of what was going on meant I checked the site about once every waking hour — parties, dates, and holidays notwithstanding. Gmail and Slack pushed notifications to my phone, my tablet, and my laptop, and I'd rarely leave it more than a few hours before finding a way to respond.

I worked hard because I loved my job, but also because the prospect of not knowing the answer to a question or making a public error filled me with dread.

I soon found myself facing another internal battle: the battle between wanting to be able to openly admit that my work is a top priority in my life while avoiding being perceived as shallow or cold. This battle has always existed, but when I was surrounded by people who by virtue of their gender will never experience or understand the struggle, it became more pronounced and harder to reconcile.

I work someplace else now — but I'm thinking about women in the workplace more than ever

I no longer work full time at the company, but I continue to help out on a freelance basis. I now work in a much more gender-diverse environment, and I'm back to wearing smarter clothes and carefully applied makeup. But I think a lot more than I ever did about the role of women in a workplace.

Being the only woman in the office taught me a lot. I felt I was able to make a genuine difference in people's perceptions. Still, so many women in my industry continue to face sexism every day. Diversity should never be an afterthought; it should be a No. 1 priority for every business owner.

Sirena Bergman is a writer and editor based in London focusing on politics, social equality, and lifestyle. She blogs at sirenabergman.com and tweets @sirenabergman.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

Explainers

How screwed are Democrats in the Senate?

Culture

The dark, enthralling power of Succession

The Goods

The problem with America’s semi-rich

View all stories in The Latest

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays