Embarrassingly conventional – startups are failing on diversity

Hamburg has serious ambitions to become a truly international city – whatever that means. On 21st March this year, it was announced that our city will be Germany’s candidate for the 2024 (and failing that, 2028) Olympics. This could catapult Hamburg onto the international stage, finally giving Hamburg the international profile that it deserves as Germany’s second largest and arguably nicest city.

In one aspect, the city’s campaign has room for improvement: diversity. In the push to get Hamburg selected as Germany’s candidate city, twelve Hamburg ad agencies stepped in to help. Unfortunately, the image they presented of Hamburg was anything but fitting for an international city:  a picture of the founders, owners and CEOs showed a group of twelve white men.

I, and many other people who know the multinational, metropolitan side of Hamburg, felt a bit embarrassed. How can a city launching an international publicity campaign be blind to something so important (and obvious)?

But surely having a startup ecosystem, with disruption in its very DNA, is a chance to turn mainstream society on its head and show how we can get the most out of all people, no matter what race, religion, colour, creed or gender? Not so fast – looking to Silicon Valley, with only 10% of female founders, startup ecosystems seem to be falling short of these lofty aims.

Sketchnotes by Ines Schaffranek

In Hamburg only 12% women founded a Startup, in Silicon Valley only 10% (Sketchnotes by Ines Schaffranek)


In fact, instead of leading the way it seems that old economy companies like Yahoo (with CEO Marissa Meyer), and Intel (with its $300m diversity drive) are making more progress than their upstart counterparts. And Hillary Clinton, previous to launching her presidential bid, ticked off Silicon Valley for its massive male majority. This is unfortunately one trend that startups around the world not only haven’t set, but have missed completely.

Evidence that gender diversity leads to success

On top of the moral case and the urge to be modern, there is evidence that more gender diversity is beneficial both on a micro and macro level. Firstly, that gender diversity boosts the “intelligence” of groups has been shown in research – the (preliminary) results of a survey described in the Harvard Business Review show that increasing the percentage of women in a group increases its “intelligence”.

Secondly, the World Economic Forum gender gap index tracks the size of the gap in many countries and a smaller gender gap strongly correlates with higher competitiveness.

Of course that’s not to belittle the case for fairness: it is only right that everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed. Who wouldn’t want that for their female partners, siblings or friends?

Germany as a whole – many women founders

It’s difficult to get exact figures on how startup ecosystems compare with each other in terms of gender diversity, but according to the Hamburg Startup Monitor, around 12% of startups in Hamburg are founded by women.

This tallies with figures for Germany as a whole, which show that around 13% of German companies are founded by females. Of all founders, 29% are women – implying that more men found several companies. For companies founded part-time, i.e. alongside regular employment, the picture is even rosier: women are as likely as men to start a new company.

So according to this information, Hamburg isn’t behind Germany as a whole. But how does our city perform in international comparisons?

Worldwide comparison: how does the Hamburg ecosystem perform on gender diversity?

According to a report on the top twenty startup ecosystems worldwide, Hamburg’s 12% figure would put it somewhere in the middle of the field. The maximum proportion of women founders was 20% (Santiago), and Berlin was right down on 3%. However, the figures are from a 2012 report, meaning that things could have changed since then.

Sketchnotes by Ines Schaffranek

Sketchnotes by Ines Schaffranek

The statistics show that in the workplace generally, German women are not in the positions of authority that they should be. In global rankings of the number of women in positions of influence compiled by the ILO, Germany comes 55th – way behind the US (15th), the UK (41st), even Belarus (6th) and Jamaica (1st). But nevertheless, 31.3% of management positions were filled by women in 2012.

But there are many, many indicators on gender equality. If you roll them all into one, as the World Economic Forum’s 2014 report on the gender gap does, then Germany comes in 12th place, in front of countries like the UK and US that are so often thought to be “further ahead” than Germany. Unsurprisingly, the Nordics are at the top of the ranking. You may not have expected that Rwanda is one of the leading lights in 7th place.

Hamburg CAN do diversity

Morgan Dahl

Morgan Dahl came here from Silicon Valley. She says the Valley is behind on gender diversity.

On a positive note: in comparison with Silicon Valley, Hamburg isn’t doing as bad on gender diversity with its 12% figure; the 2012 report put Silicon Valley on 10%.

And the comparative thinness of the glass ceiling is confirmed by Morgan Dahl – who recently gave up her job in Silicon Valley to live in Hamburg. She says that Hamburg seems to have a more open approach to women founders:

I personally worked on a team of six women in Silicon Valley, but all of our superiors were male and there were clear signs that climbing within that company would be difficult if not close to impossible. As I begin to be acquainted with the startup world in Hamburg I see similarities, but I have also noticed that there is an openness to give women to be a bigger part of the local development.

Within the startup scene, there is an increasing number of role-models and encouragement for women founders – see the series of interviews conducted by the Startup Weekend Women Hamburg.

Sabela Garcia, one of the organisers of the Startup Weekend Women Hamburg.

Sabela Garcia, one of the organisers of the Startup Weekend Women Hamburg, says Hamburgs startup scene has many women role models.

The Startup Weekend Women Hamburg, organised by a group of (mostly) women, is a weekend-long event that took place in April 2015. The format, originally from the USA, helps women develop a startup idea in just 54 hours and pitch it competitively at the end of the weekend. Men are able to take part too, meaning that it is a startup weekend like any other, but the idea is to reverse the gender bias and encourage women to take part in further startup weekends.

One of the organisers, Sabela Garcia, told me:

To be honest, I was surprised by how many women were active in the startup scene. We did a series of interviews with women entrepreneurs – so there is plenty of inspiration!

Indeed, within Hamburg over recent years there has been an increase in the number of organisations and groups promoting women’s participation especially in the digital industries. The Digital Media Women is a very well-known example. They have now gone on to found chapters in cities across Germany.

The Social Media Week Hamburg (which I helped to organise over the past years) has an organising team that is mostly female and the advisory board is nearly 50-50. The keynotes this year were majority female, with 5 female keynote speakers, 4 males and one gender-free robot.

However, in reality Germany still lacks role-models for women in tech and startups – as a study of the IAB (Institute for Labour Market and Career Research) found.

Men stand to gain from diversity too

Alex Ahom

Alex Ahom – founder of the Shhared coworking space – says women are the true trailblazers.

Organisations like the DMW and Geekettes bring advantages not only for women but also men.

Alex Ahom, founder of Shhared – a Hamburg coworking space that appeals to an international audience and wears diversity on its sleeve – was at a Geekettes event recently and was impressed by the experience:

The Geekettes event was different from many male-dominated events in the scene. The atmosphere was relaxed, the networking felt more authentic and this was a group of people looking to help each other. That’s exactly what a startup ecosystem needs. We also shouldn’t forget that in a male-dominated environment, the women are breaking the mould, taking risks and rewriting the rule book – they are the true trailblazers and innovators.

The startup scene is a great place to do your own thing – and ignore classic gender roles

Although startup scenes as a whole might still be a reflection of the old-fashioned societies we live in, founding a company does offer some shelter because it means women and enlightened men can ignore other people and do their own thing.

Irene Broer, a freelance journalist from the Netherlands, told me:

The wonderful thing about starting up a business yourself is that you don’t need to be hired into a possibly gender-biased environment. So in that sense, entrepreneurialism can be especially empowering.

Irene Broer, a freelance journalist from the Netherlands.

Irene Broer, a freelance journalist from the Netherlands, says founding a startup is a chance for women to play by their own rules.

So all in all, Hamburg – and in particular the startup scene – is a place where ever more women will find the conditions that enable them to thrive and make their dreams a reality. This will be for the good of all, regardless of gender: partners, colleagues, bosses, employees and society as a whole.

There’s a long way to go, but a startup scene wouldn’t be a startup scene without pushing boundaries. Internationally, it’s obvious that gender is an issue that is very topical and not about to go away. To be taken seriously as a leading ecosystem, Hamburg will have to keep pace and up its game – like all other startup ecosystems.


About the author and the sketchnotes artist

John Heaven

John Heaven

John Heaven, originally from Birmingham, UK, has lived in Hamburg since March 2010. He is author of the column “Views from Heaven” and of the blog “Why Hamburg?”. John not only creates content himself but helps customers to manage theirs with Drupal, WordPress and other systems. Together with Ferdinand Weps, he offers this and other services under the brand Heaven & Weps. Since 2013 he has been co-organiser of the Social Media Week Hamburg. Before coming to Hamburg he studied Law, followed by a Master’s in International Studies, at Exeter and Saarbrücken and went on to work as a Graduate Trainee at Birmingham City Council. Find more about John!

Ines Schaffranek

Ines Schaffranek

Ines Schaffranek is a passionate Doodler and visual learner. She is blogging about Sketchnotes and Events on pheminific.de. Ines works at Albert Bauer Digital GmbH & Co. KG as SEO Account Manager and enjoys sharing her knowledge at conferences and barcamps. If you want to meet her you should joi

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