May 22, 2024

What do women working at startups want? It’s not better parental leave

Women are happy with their tech jobs, though some have serious complaints about salary, culture and career progression

Startups are doing something right; 46% of women rated their happiness at work as a 4 out of 5 or above, a Sifted survey of 320 women in tech found — although 62% of survey respondents also said their stress levels have increased in the past year.

Despite that, over two thirds (67%) said their mental health was ‘good’ or ‘very good’ at the moment.

However, the last two years of economic instability and broader market downturn has taken its toll, with many respondents citing “unmanageable” workloads, “toxic” culture, a lack of direction from the top, losing faith in the leadership and a lack of career progression as reasons to leave their current jobs. 


The gender imbalance at startups remains a concern too; several respondents mentioned disliking the “bro culture” and “boys club” nature of their workplace.

Women at the top aren’t immune, either: a third of Sifted’s respondents are in senior positions at their startups; 32% are senior managers, 18% are cofounders and 16% are C-suite executives. 

A third of women said they plan to leave their jobs in less than a year: either to escape the pressures of their current job or to pursue new opportunities (and better salaries).

The results chime with Sifted’s previous reporting on the outflux of women leaving tech careers in the last few years.

In 2023, we reported that tech layoffs at startups disproportionately affected women. Many female VCs also left the industry last year.

Hitting the glass ceiling

Lack of career progression was cited by many women as a reason why they are considering leaving their current roles.

One respondent told Sifted that she is the only female member of the C-suite at her company and the only C-suite member not on the company’s board. She described not feeling listened to, being given “unreasonable expectations for delivery” and hitting “a glass ceiling” of progression at her company.

Another told us that it is “the increasing sense of having to work ten times harder than men to barely achieve similar recognition” that is among the reasons why she wants to leave her job.

Many respondents reported feeling underappreciated and having their ideas “constantly overlooked” by managers and colleagues. Others said they did not have enough support to carry out their role effectively.

Some respondents said they are not paid enough for the job they are doing, with some expressing that they are paid under “market value.”


Startup life

Many of the challenges causing respondents stress at work will be no surprise to anyone working at a startup: poor leadership; a lack of strategy and direction from the top; stretched resources; unrealistic targets; long working hours; and fundraising concerns are all weighing on employees’ minds at the moment.

68% of respondents said they work above their contracted hours at their startup.

However, for some women, it’s reached a tipping point, with a third of respondents telling Sifted they’re considering leaving their jobs this year.

Some said layoffs, a lack of resources needed to lead a team or department and the feeling of instability brought on by a challenging economic climate contributed to their decision to leave her current job.

Burnout, unmanageable workloads and working overtime without pay were also cited as key reasons for leaving tech — as was the need for more work-life balance. 

Unsafe environments

“Bro culture” and “toxic leadership/culture” were other things that came up again and again in survey responses. 

One respondent said she doesn’t feel “psychologically safe” at work and always feels under pressure to prove her value; another says she’s leaving her job due to harassment and bullying.

“I see no future for myself at all in technology,” said one respondent. “I am repeatedly burnt out after years of this toxic masculine culture. I’m retraining at the moment to make a career change into women’s health instead.”

29% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, with the majority (65%) saying they have never experienced it. 6% preferred not to say.

“I've experienced harassment more since becoming a manager,” said another. “I'm an immigrant and I feel that plays a higher role in the aggression of the discrimination.”

Some respondents raised the issue that there are no appropriate channels at their startup to report bullying, abuse or harassment. 

“I have worked at a company where my female colleague was sexually harassed and it wasn't taken seriously at all,” said one startup employee. “I ended up leaving a couple of months after finding out because the guys who ran the company just brushed it under the carpet and were clearly not going to escalate it.”

What women want

Respondents said a good compensation package is the most important thing for women at work, followed by flexible working hours and the ability to work from home.

89% of respondents said their employers offer the option to work from home and 72% said they offer flexible working hours. 

Many women who don’t have the option to work from home or the opportunity for flexible schedules cited both as things they would look for in their next jobs.

Stock options, healthcare benefits and a good parental leave policy were cited in the survey as the least important things for women in the workplace. 

However, some women did flag that juggling childcare with their jobs leading or working at a startup led to increased stress and they would like to see more support from their employers in this regard. 

Just 6% of respondents said their employers offer childcare support.
“The uncertainty about the future and the need to juggle motherhood with work without having any empathy from my employer for things such as: child sickness or even pre-agreed holidays,” was cited as a reason by one respondent for her increased stress levels.

What can make workplaces better?

Women called for companies to create environments where women are heard and appreciated, and suggested several things to help companies do that: 

  • Train managers to be more aware of the challenges women face in the workplace. Managers should work to let women be heard in meetings and actively involve them in decision-making.
  • Make diversity and inclusion training a priority for all levels of the organisation
  • Offer clear progression and salary frameworks. Transparent salaries can also help to reduce unfairness and close the gender pay gap
  • Hire more female executives! Some respondents said having women in leadership positions has led to more female-friendly policies such as enhanced parental leave
  • Have more “empathy” for parents and offer more flexibility in work schedules

A key message from the responses was that companies need to be intentional about making change, creating clear policies and frameworks to support women in tech, rather than resting on their laurels and hoping it works out. 

“The shift to improve women's situation at work needs to start from the top,” said one respondent. “It must be a balance between hiring more feminine talent and creating the right culture for women to thrive.”

Another respondent said she hoped to make a difference in her current role and take charge of shaping a supportive company culture for women. “I'm the only woman in our company, and I have the ability to set the direction in gender diversity. Right now, we just need the ability to enlarge the team and I hope we can hire more women”, she said. 

Miriam Partington

Miriam Partington is a reporter at Sifted. She covers the DACH region and the future of work, and coauthors Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn