March is Women's History Month, and women have come a long way since the days of fighting for the vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, be it education, technology, equal pay, campus sexual assault, and more. All month long, msnbc.com is highlighting women leaders who are fighting for the women's rights issues of 2015.
While the technology industry is booming, women are still struggling to break into Silicon Valley. Women hold only 14% of senior management positions at Silicon Valley tech startups. And more broadly in the business world, only 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. But 52% of the American workforce is made up of women -- so why are there so few women in leadership roles?
Eileen Carey and Lauren Mosenthal, co-founders of Glassbreakers, want to change that by creating a new platform for mentorship for women, particularly women in tech, to mentor other women -- and in the process, help companies create a better pipeline of women leaders. Glassbreakers, which launched in late January, has already signed up close to 10,000 women. Carey and Mosenthal answered our questions about Glassbreakers, their goals, and how to get more women in leadership roles in tech.
Tell us about Glassbreakers to start. How does it work, and what are your goals?
Glassbreakers is a peer mentorship platform for professional women. We’ve built a machine learning algorithm that utilizes LinkedIn data and user inputs to match women with similar career goals and interests. Kind of like online dating, each user has to opt in to connect with their match before Glassbreakers makes the introduction. Our goal is to use the technology we’re building to connect, support and inspire women around the world to break the glass ceiling, together.
What inspired you to start Glassbreakers?
We both moved to San Francisco to pursue our dream of launching our own startup. In Silicon Valley, we’re taught that the key to success as a founder is to work on a problem that you’re so passionate about you will spend your entire life trying to solve it. The first time we met we spent hours geeking out about our shared career goal and the problem we were both completely obsessed with: gender inequality in the workforce. We started researching how to hack mentorship (a solution that had catapulted our careers) by talking to potential users as well as large companies. The women we met who so deeply needed a technology solution like Glassbreakers inspired us to drop everything and start building it.
Glassbreakers launched in January. How has the growth been so far? Can you share any data on signups, any stories of positive experiences that women have had out of using the site?
The Glassbreakers community may just be one of the coolest communities on the Internet. We are seeing women in robotics meeting up for cocktails, iOS engineers getting coffee to share insights on building for the apple watch and machine learning PHD’s grabbing brunch together. On Valentines Day 20 women on Glassbreakers were literally meeting up for Galentines day. We’re going to be expanding to new verticals soon based on demand but we’re close to ten thousand users.
You both worked in in tech before starting Glassbreakers. What was your experience like? Were you frequently the only woman / women in the room? Did you experience sexism? How did you handle it?
Eileen: Before working in enterprise software, I wrote a startup blog. The CEO of one of the hot startups I had written about poached me about joining his team. He told me the interview process would be intense, but it was actually just inappropriate. To ‘get the job’ I had to fly out the next day to spend Easter weekend working with him alone in Redwood city all day and all night and stay at a cheap motel across the street. They were incredibly well funded and had twenty employees but the only woman on the team was the office manager. The CEO told me the reason I wasn’t going to be hired after all was because I wasn’t a ‘culture fit.' He said my work was great but his team was really more of the hoodies and cons kind of guys and he didn’t think I’d ever fit in. It was my first big interview in Silicon Valley and I learned a valuable lesson: I didn’t want to be a ‘culture fit’ for any startup that had over a dozen male employees that had yet to hire a woman.
Lauren: Before starting Glassbreakers, I was on several all male software engineering teams. I luckily did not experience sexism. However, there were times I felt like the men surrounding me were holding back jokes because they were trying to be appropriate when I was around. When I would hear the environment would completely change after I left the room from other colleagues, it made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed. The latter example is typically in mono cultures. As more time went on and everyone got to know one another more and I internalized it wasn’t just “me," we found a more comfortable middle ground. During this time and ever since, I’ve surrounded myself with other women developers I met through Railsbridge or Women Who Code; I found these software engineering communities to be filled with really smart, motivated and kick-ass women who understood the context I was in and had great advice. Now, I meet a woman software engineer every week through Glassbreakers.
What do you think needs to be done to get more women and girls into technology?
You can’t be what you can’t see. To get more women into technology, we need to shift our focus towards getting the women that are already in the industry to stay. It’s not just a pipeline issue -- it’s more importantly a retention issue. We’ve been to technical conferences where there were over 20 speakers and yet not a single woman, which is unacceptable. Instead of circling around the problems women in tech face, we’d love to see more celebration of the brilliant women in engineering actually making change. A solution we know to be true to get more women into technology is to demonstrate that they don’t have to do it alone.
How do you think the male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley can be changed? Where do you see Glassbreakers fitting into that?
It all comes down to real numbers (ie actual profits and not inflated valuations). Silicon Valley companies with diverse teams, especially diverse engineering teams, will reap the rewards of higher returns. GB is a thoughtful software solution to deepen women’s interpersonal relationships at the enterprise so they truly feel supported. The companies we’re working with see Glassbreakers as a means to not only improve retention but also improve leadership.
There are many studies that indicate that women are graduating from college and entering the workforce in higher numbers than men – but when you get past entry level to executive and leadership levels, there are far fewer women. How do we create a better pipeline of women leaders and get more women into those leadership roles?
A great Harvard Business Review case study just came out about why women need to network differently than men, check it out here. Systemic sexism is a real thing so in order to navigate it women must approach their career paths differently than their male colleagues. It’s also really important to keep men a part of this conversation because gender roles in the workforce hurt us all. Mentorship is broken for women because there are too many mentees entering the workforce for the limited number of mentors available. Peer mentorship, however, gives women the opportunity to share incredibly relevant career advice. We can create a better pipeline of women leaders and get more women into those leadership roles by utilizing the power of technology to intelligently connect us.
And lastly: what's your hope for the next generation of women?
We hope the next generation of women makes up 50% of the C-suite.
Read more profiles in our Women's History Month series here.