Startup Life/Analysis/

Who’s in the startup C-suite? Not women

Women are still largely underrepresented in startup C-suite roles — with one exception

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

Katja Bauer, partner at i-potentials

Women are still highly underrepresented in the C-suite at European tech companies, with one in seven executives being women, according to data from Figures.

And that’s despite growing industry attention on the lack of women in key decision-making roles.

Using data from Figures, a salary benchmarking tool for startups and VC firms, Sifted analysed the male-to-female split of C-suite roles in startups and scaleups across Germany, France and the UK.

So, just how bleak are things looking?

Startup C-suite gender diversity is bad 

In the UK, France and Germany, more women are appointed chief HR officers (CHRO) than men.

Yet there are more men than women in every other C-suite role tracked by Figures. 

The representation of women is the worst in the chief technology officer and chief executive officer roles in all three countries — with the latter being the best paid role in the industry, according to data from executive recruitment agency i-potentials.

“We experience the same phenomenon across scaleups, small and medium-sized businesses and corporates. Homogenous leadership teams are reproducing themselves, mostly without (companies) being aware of it,” says Katja Bauer, partner at  i-potentials. 

“If in doubt, leaders prefer similarity to plurality. Unconscious bias is one of the reasons why inequality is permanently reproducing itself,” she adds. 

United Kingdom

The UK has the highest percentage of women in both the CHRO and chief marketing officer (CMO) role.

86% of CHROs are women at UK startups, while 40% of CMOs are women, according to Figures. 

Just 5% of UK startup CTOs are women.

Germany

Germany has the lowest percentage of women (9%) in the chief financial officer role, in comparison to the UK, where 31% of tech CFOs tracked by Figures are female. 

Germany does, however, have the highest percentage of female chief revenue officers. 

Again, women dominate the CHRO role in Germany: only 25% of CHROs are men. 

Interestingly, and in contrast to the UK, the majority of CMOs at German startups are men (70%).

France

France, in comparison to Germany and the UK, has the lowest percentage of women in the chief operating officer role.

It also has the lowest percentage of CTOs (2%). 

So, what gives?

Bauer believes there is generally less female talent the higher up the ladder you go due to unconscious bias and a “leaky” talent pipeline, which essentially means there isn’t enough diversity — including gender, ethnicity and education — in the candidate pool.

“That said: The more female talent we have at the beginning of the pipeline the more we see at the top,” she adds.

Sanna Kröger, senior consultant at executive search firm Mercuri Urval, says that another reason why female talent might be lacking in the pipeline is because startups increasingly rely on their own networks to find talent, or they search for talent via the same university-educated talent pool. 

“Many startups do not use professional help (consultants) to find new personnel but employ a temporary junior talent person to find experienced people”

“Many startups do not use professional help (consultants) to find new personnel but employ a temporary junior talent person to find experienced people,” adds Kröger. 

The lack of female representation at the top is a well-researched issue in the corporate environment. A 2021 study by McKinsey of women in the workplace shows that there are persistent gaps in the talent pipeline: women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men. The representation of women of colour in particular decreases in line with higher seniority.

That women are well represented in HR roles and not very well represented in others, might be because executive positions for people and culture were traditionally not considered to be “strategic to the organisation,” says Bauer. 

This view of the HR function is now changing, adds Bauer, as the “need for talent retention and the changing demands of recruitment” has increased the importance of people and culture roles. 

What can be done?

The global labour force participation rate for women is just over 50% compared to 80% for men, according to statistics from the World Bank — a discrepancy that was heightened during the pandemic.

Women are still handling the majority of the childcare in heterosexual partnerships. Research also shows that more women lost their jobs during the pandemic than men.

“How to fix this? We need cultural change, such as increasing investment in gender-sensitive measures on parental leave and on early childhood education and care that supports a better work-life balance for both parents; equal opportunities in tech education, endorsing girls at school and university to take on mathematical courses,” says Kröger. 

When it comes to getting more women into technical roles, like the CTO position, companies and hiring managers have to go the extra mile to recruit female tech talent, writes Ségolène Alquier — a software engineer at healthtech Doctolib and the creator of French women in tech meetup Sororitech — on Medium.

Companies should firstly offer more information to women in tech roles about what a CTO is, what its duties are and the pathways to get into this role.

They should also think about hiring female developers who are ready to become CTOs, rather than contacting women who are already CTO at other companies, to bring more female talent into the pipeline.

There are a growing number of Europe-wide schemes to train up women for C-suite roles. These include the C-Level programme from European women on boards and an online leadership accelerator from Female Founders in Austria.

There’s also the Female Factor which is building a community for women in tech to help close the gender leadership gap, which offers mentoring, networking events and a job marketplace. 

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s DACH correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @mparts_

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