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Silicon Valley start-ups lead the way toward more women in the workplace

Silicon Valley start-ups lead the way toward more women in the workplace
Sukhinder Singh, co-founder and CEO of fashion and lifestyle e-commerce site Joyus, is serious about the company's paternity and maternity leave policy. “I started Joyus as a mother of three, and my co-founder had her first and second child while at Joyus.”

As Silicon Valley struggles to add more women to its predominantly male workforce — and to support their careers once they're there — some young technology companies are demonstrating how it's done.

Benefits and working environment differ from company to company, but those that hire and promote women in significant numbers share one trait: total commitment from the top.

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Jon Bischke, chief executive of job recruitment platform Entelo, said to attract and retain diverse talent the adage of leading by example is "100% true." Talking about diversity and spending money on programs are nice, but people take direction from company leaders, "and if those people don't value it, you won't see it," he says.

By "value it," Bischke doesn't mean words, he means deeds:

If a company offers maternity and paternity leave, do employees lose their position on their return? If a company has an anti-harassment policy, is it strictly enforced or are managers quick to dismiss problems? If a company says it's a parent-friendly workplace, does it throw beer pong and keg parties at the end of every workweek, or does it try to accommodate people who have other interests or family commitments?

Like many tech firms in Silicon Valley, fashion and lifestyle e-commerce site Joyus offers a companywide paternity and maternity leave policy. But its founders showed how serious they are about the policy: They themselves took the leave.

"I started Joyus as a mother of three, and my co-founder had her first and second child while at Joyus," said Sukhinder Singh, Joyus' co-founder and chief executive. "So we were figuring out how to take maternity leave while running a company."

At Joyus, about 60% of its 55-person workforce consists of women; the engineering team is about 50% women.

Udacity, the online education company, employs 130, about 40% of them women. Co-founder Sebastian Thrun said he fosters a culture that welcomes workers from all backgrounds through flexible schedules. As long as the work gets done, Thrun doesn't care if parents leave at 3 p.m. to pick up their kids, or if they need to disappear for a few hours in the morning for family commitments.

"In interviews, we never ask candidates if they're married or have kids, because it has no impact on our decision," Thrun said. "We ask about passion. We want to know that they're proactive."

Meanwhile, co-founder of software start-up Npm Inc., Isaac Schlueter, said he tries set examples himself at the 19-employee company (about 40% women).

Schlueter keeps reasonable hours himself to encourage his employees to have a life outside of their jobs in an industry where 100-hour workweeks aren't unusual.

"For me, this was an experiment," he said. "I've never worked at a place where the company leadership said, 'We're OK with shipping stuff slower as long as we move forward at a steady pace.' I've had to impose that. We send people home at 6 p.m. We gently chastise each other if we're caught working on weekends."

Whether such policies will survive the next technology industry downturn is yet to be seen. The attitude seems the polar opposite of working environments described at many tech companies, including Amazon.com Inc., the subject of a recent New York Times story that described in painful detail a cutthroat work environment.

Change at big companies is tough. At companies where culture is already baked in, the law of large numbers means even leaders serious about change will have a hard time lifting their women-to-men ratio in the short term. Despite recent efforts, only about 32% of Facebook's workforce consists of women. At Google, it's about 30%. Some are spending big though: Google, with 50,000 employees, plans $150 million on diversity programs this year, and Apple $50 million. Intel is one-upping everyone with a $300-million investment.

Because they're starting from scratch, start-up companies could have the most impact over the long run.

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"I spend 95% of my time with start-ups," said company coach and consultant Patty McCord, who was Netflix's chief talent officer for 12 years.

In addition to spearheading Netflix's hiring efforts, McCord is the coauthor of the company's now widely referenced 128-page culture deck, a presentation shown to potential and new hires detailing the company's values. Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, once described the deck as "maybe the most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley."

"Founders will say to me, 'Hey, we want to write a culture deck,' and I say, 'If you write it down, will you behave this way?'" McCord said. "I say, OK, let's take a value you believe in, like diversity — tell me five things you have personally done this week to forward the cause of diversity, and they'll say 'Uhh...."

Some companies produce "nice-sounding values," McCord said — things that the company leaders and human resource departments decide they believe in. Then there are the "real company values," which companies show through "who gets rewarded, promoted or let go."

"I often tell my CEOs it's your job to be the leader," McCord said. "Everyone else will copy you."

Twitter: @traceylien

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