Deeptech/Opinion/

Investors said my male cofounder’s name 117 times, mine only 16

Lorna Armitage shares what she and her other female cofounder did about sexism in the industry.

CAPSLOCK
Lorna Armitage

By Lorna Armitage

I have worked in cybersecurity for over 15 years. I’ve been a senior academic developing computer science and cybersecurity degrees. I’ve directed research projects around disrupting online radicalisation with police and helped some of the country’s most sophisticated organisations identify cyber vulnerabilities.

I also happen to be a woman. So despite the work I’ve done and the years of experience I hold, I have been talked over in meetings, patronised, mansplained to and had my expertise belittled throughout my entire career. 

Perhaps naively, I thought that these sexist microaggressions would come to an end when I founded my own company. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. 

I cofounded CAPSLOCK in 2019 alongside Dr Andrea Cullen and Jonathan Slater, in response to the UK’s cyber skills gap. As a mixed-gender founding team, almost immediately we began to notice one glaring problem in external meetings: Andrea and I were largely being ignored, and the vast majority of conversation was being explicitly directed to Jonathan.

Keeping score

Once we’d noticed this, the three of us decided to keep a running total of the number of times our names were mentioned by external meeting attendees. We ultimately recorded 18 consecutive external meetings in this way, and the results are pretty bleak, albeit not surprising. 

In total, I was addressed by name 16 times. Andrea, only 11 times. Jonathan’s name, meanwhile, was said 117 times. There hasn’t been a single meeting to date where either myself or Andrea have been addressed more frequently than Jonathan, despite many of those meetings being more pertinent to our areas of expertise than his. All too often, people assume he is “the boss” simply because he’s a man.

All three of us carry the title of cofounder, so it’s not as if Jonathan is a more senior member of staff. And in terms of cybersecurity expertise, Andrea and I have been working in cyber for longer than Jonathan has been alive (sorry Jonathan!). Quite frankly, it makes me feel invisible, disrespected and unworthy. I have achieved a lot in my career, as has Andrea, but it never seems to be enough to merit equal recognition with our male cofounder.

How we’re tackling the issue

So, what now? We’ve begun to tackle the issue in three ways: raising awareness of what we’ve experienced, calling it out when it happens and working with the right people.

Firstly, raising awareness. We shared the results of our tally with various cyber publications and gained a lot of traction on social media, as well as (mostly) supportive responses. We need to be having these conversations about gender biases, not just amongst ourselves as women who already recognise the problem, but among the wider workforce too. If our publication of the tally resulted in one person reflecting on their unconscious biases and taking steps to improve, then it’s been a worthwhile venture.

One of the best things to come of this situation was that one of our investors saw our report and immediately reached out to apologise if they had ever prioritised Jonathan’s input over ours, and promised to be more conscious of this in the future. Receiving that email was great. 

Some people realise that they’ve assumed Jonathan was in charge and change their behaviour. Some people don’t. We tend not to work with those people

Another way to tackle meeting-room misogyny is to simply call it out, and it doesn’t always have to be in an obvious or confrontational manner. If Jonathan gets asked a question that should have been addressed to me or Andrea, he always defers it to us. Even then, sometimes related follow-up questions are still directed to him, at which stage he makes a point of telling them that they should be addressing one of us. So you don’t have to be aggressive about it, but you also don’t have to just let it slide. 

And that brings me on to our final consideration: start working with the right people. Some people realise that they’ve simply assumed Jonathan was in charge and do change their behaviour. Some people don’t. We tend not to work with those people.

Of course, the best meetings are those where people don’t treat Jonathan like the boss in the first place. We work with companies who are a good cultural fit as much as anything else, and the more we collaborate with the right people, the fewer instances of unconscious sexism crop up.

Ultimately, the change has to come from the top. As long as women don’t have an equal voice in these meetings, the status quo will never change.

Lorna Armitage is cofounder of CAPSLOCK.

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