If startups lack gender diversity in their early days, the disparity will only increase over time — a phenomenon dubbed “diversity debt” in a recent research paper.
The study’s authors found that when men far outnumber women at a startup, other women are less likely to apply. “A gender gap in applicants can create a vicious cycle of diversity debt as startups scale their workforce,” according to a Feb. 16 announcement from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business.
Researchers asked job applicants to view one of two startup employer profiles. The employers were identical except that one showed its gender composition as 5% women and the other showed 40% women. Women were more wary of entering the former’s applicant pools than their male counterparts, the study revealed.
The “diversity debt” seemed to create concerns about being singled out, marginalized or mistreated, the researchers said. Female participants offered comments such as, “I immediately get ‘tech bro’ vibes from this place, and it is somewhere I am not interested in,” and “As a woman, I feel like I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Employers with early disparities will find their pipelines restricted far into the future, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Melissa Cardon, Haslam distinguished professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the school. The debt “compounds startups’ lack of access to the best talent available to fill their open positions,” she said in a statement.
The research team suggested employers find proactive ways to become more attractive to female job seekers and — if it’s not too late — improve representation of women in the hiring funnel from Day One. The result will be a competitive advantage of larger, more diverse candidate pools, they said.