Since I entered the tech start-up space, I’ve become increasingly more aware of the impact being a woman has on how business leaders perceive and treat you.

My start-up Vollie has a 50% gender split across its founding members and is run by myself and my business partner Matt, with an even split of work between us both. Whilst Matt is the more outwardly vocal advocate for our online skills-based volunteering platform, I am the one who is head of operations, making sure that every time Matt creates a new opportunity for us it is successfully managed and achieved.

As an agile start-up, we find this approach works for us – Matt is the heart and I am the head. Where he leads with passion, I can balance with logic. It is this approach that has given us the success we have had so far. But for those people who don’t understand the way we work and our equality, they often perceive Matt as the lead and myself as just the support behind the scenes, which frustrates us both.

As the quieter co-founder and the female, it is easy for me to be pushed to the side when my counterpart is already a boisterous, tall and imposing male figure, as people do not always realise the equal roles we play. I was reminded by the age-old proverb, “behind every great man there is a great woman”, which in my perspective couldn’t be further from the truth. The real truth is without me, Vollie wouldn’t be half of what it is and without Matt, Vollie wouldn’t be half of what it is. We stand beside each other as equal co-founders and refuse to let the other be cast in the other’s shadow.

I have discovered this is something that is being experienced by many other women in business. She Will Shine is Melbourne’s first all-female co-working space providing connection and support for female business owners across Australia. I recently spoke to Danielle Price, founder of She Will Shine, to get her opinion on the roadblocks that women in business face in the today’s society.

“Traditionally, women are more comfortable behind the scenes (or in the shadows) and not looking to step into the spotlight. This may be a confidence issue as it’s often a new path with new fears and new experiences that need to be overcome,” she said.

Danielle said that many female founders are now seeking to break away from traditional gender roles and step into the limelight, which takes a level of confidence that many women in business lack.

Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) once said, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be told instead she has leadership skills.” Danielle agrees with this sentiment, and warns that degradation and dismissal based on preconceived gender roles can undermine the growth of a business due to a lack of self-confidence from a founder.

Jemma Wong, a strategic marketer and the creator of Girls Who Brand, believes it comes down to visibility. “Visibility and endorsement of senior female leaders is key – it’s not only important for clients and customers to see, but for our younger industry talent.”

“You can’t be what you can’t see, and I know from my own experience that women will be more productive and fast-moving towards opportunities if they can see tangible (not token) career pathways ahead of them,” Jemma added.

It is so important for those of us who are female founders and business leaders to get confident with stepping out of the shadows and into the limelight so that we can encourage the next generation of young women leaders.

Someone once told me, “If you walk into a room and someone is missing, you’re in the wrong room”. When I walk into any one of the countless meetings, presentations, workshops, and start-up meet-ups that fill my calendar each week, I’m miffed that even as a Greek-Australian living in Melbourne, I’m often in the minority when it comes to the representation of leaders! While the majority of my daily communications are with wonderful women from Vollie’s non-profit family, meeting a female founder is still a relatively rare experience.

Jemma knows first-hand the benefits that can happen when organisations proactively pursue diversity, “It’s healthy for outcomes and the bottom line! We need diversity of skill, experience and perspective around the table – varying lenses on a problem – to highlight a golden answer.”

“I created Girls Who Brand because I was tired of smart women marketers being overlooked and because I wanted to find ways to break traditional gendered narratives in campaign work.” Wong continues, “I wanted to show young female talent that there are legends and trailblazers all around them, and to get comfortable with putting their work, name and contribution out there into the world!”

Jemma isn’t the only one who’s noticed an imbalance in the scales; research shows that entrepreneurs are “disproportionately white, male and high educated”. When I look around the start-up environment, I’m still longing to see more female founders, more first-generation immigrants, and a lot more first Australians representing their own interests.

Ventures such as BlueChilli’s all female accelerator, female-only co-working spaces such as She Will Shine and One Roof, and the success stories of Melanie Perkins, Canva CEO, and Jodie Fox, Co-Founder of Shoes of Prey that the media do a genuinely awesome job of promoting have undoubtedly tipped the scales closer to an equilibrium.

In the bid to create an equal playing field for all, there is an onus on the people who are currently taking up more than their fair share of the space in the room…

Try these heels for size

Ann Nolan is the co-founder of Snobal, a virtual reality start-up based out of Melbourne’s Inner West that has recently been accepted into HTC’s ViveX global accelerator program and the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program.

While Snobal are at the forefront of building VR tools for business, Ann recounts how she can occasionally encounter assumptions around the allocation of roles between her and her business and life partner, Murray.

“I have had Snobal introduced as ‘Murray’s company’ while I’ve been standing next to him,” Ann explains, “it’s tempting to put your hand up and say “I created this as well!””

And as parents, Ann finds even the most well-meaning of questions about balancing family life and founder life are directed at her, not Murray, illustrating perhaps the implicit bias that parenting responsibility sits with her.

In Ann’s story and the stories of female founders like hers, there is a simple solution at hand. Speaking from personal experience, a male co-founder who is proud to identify himself as a feminist and an advocate for equal rights is an amazing asset to have in your corner.

Every time I am treated less preferentially to Matt by an investor, fellow business owner or employee, I have both the confidence and support of my co-founder to assert my right to be treated as an equal. Hell, more often than not Matty is pushing my opinion over his if we feel that I’m not being seriously taken. It’s an incredibly small thing for him to do, but it’s the helping hands from those above and the leg-ups from those below that make those steep hills that much easier to climb.

Western middle-to-upper-class men have an incredible amount of privilege when it comes to founding a start-up, with the US-based reporting that just 36% of small business owners are women. Also, over 80% of funding for new businesses comes from personal savings and friends and family, which means that if women are being paid an average of 16% less than men, there is simply less money for them to be founding or funding a start-up with!

The power that comes with privilege is used by Vollie to fight for equality both in the work we do and in our interactions within the global business community (including how our founders are treated). As a male founder, simply attempting to walk in the shoes of those in your fellow start-up community who may not enjoy the same privileges as you do is enough to give you an eye-opening perspective (can’t figure out how to do that? Take a leaf out of Martin Schneider and Nicole Hallberg’s gender-swapping experiment at work).

Speak up, man

It takes a village to achieve just about any meaningful change, but if the village can’t see that it needs to change, then we’ve got a problem. It’s basic maths: if 95% of the funded Australian start-up community is male (StartupSmart, 2016), then that same 95% can wield a lot of influence about what changes we need to make.

Danielle from She Will Shine agrees, and says that men have a social responsibility to change their perception and expectations regarding women in the workforce.

“Throughout the She Will Shine community discussions are already being held on these topics, but opening these discussions in male-centric platforms is the only way forward to see change happen across the board. And it’s something that we are currently working towards.”

For those of you out there who don’t speak up for others or promote the representation of people of all types, doing it will make a world of difference to the women you work with, for the women you invest in and for the women who might one day work for you.

Behind every great man there is just a shadow, and beside him is a woman holding the light.


Tanya Dontas is Co-Founder and COO of Vollie, a platform that connects skilled Australians with non-profit organisations to unlock a new style of skills-based remote volunteering. With a double (Bachelors) degree of Commerce and Chinese, Tanya has over five years marketing and events experience working within start-ups, event companies and in the corporate space. Tanya has a passion for helping others in need and regularly volunteers for charities during her spare time.

The Diversity Council of Australia has released its first study on the “cultural glass ceiling”, a report which is long overdue.

The conversation of diversity in Australia has mainly been about the number of women at board level and in directorships. There are diversity programs in companies focused on ensuring they gain gender balance. In addition, the male “champions of change” movement is all about powerful men stepping up beside women to achieve a sustainable increase in the representation of females in leadership.

These are all great initiatives, but I believe that we need to change our language around this issue: diversity is not all about gender balance.

Diversity is explained as “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual

So, diversity is about people who come in different packages – ethnicity, ability and sexuality. Until now we have never measured the cultural diversity of our organisations. It is almost as if we use the word diversity to only represent one element of the term – gender balance.

However, we finally have our first report which must start the conversation amongst leaders in Australia on the issue of the cultural glass ceiling.

Over the last 18 months I have spoken to over 10,000 men, women, leaders, and managers. I have challenged them on their ideas of diversity and asked the question whether the colours of their organisation in fact reflect the communities they work in. And as I look around the room and see a sea of white faces looking back at me, I know that there is a lack of cultural diversity in many organisations.

So, what are leaders doing about this issue? The Australian landscape of people will only become more diverse and our workplaces need to keep up with the pace.

According to the research, if ASX directors were 100 people then the following statistics would apply:

  • 2 would be culturally diverse women
  • 6 would be Anglo Celtic women
  • 28 would be culturally diverse men
  • 64 would be Anglo Celtic men

As a woman of Indian background, I have experienced the double jeopardy which comes in the corporate world.

Firstly, I have had to break the cultural glass ceiling within my own community. I married a white man, never went to university, sent my kids to child care, went back to full time work, and then got divorced. Pretty normal if I was a white woman. However, as an Indian woman I have been made to feel guilty on all these choices and labelled a “bad” wife and mother.

Secondly, I have had to smash through the same glass ceilings and work much harder to prove my worth and capability – not just as a woman but as somebody of colour.

Women of cultural backgrounds are very ambitious. We would not leave our country of birth, away from family or friends, to move to a foreign land and restart our lives if we weren’t.

We are extremely capable, often bi-lingual and incredibly resilient. We make great negotiators, understand cultural nuances when doing business and we embrace change.

Frankly, it’s a valuable combination for any employer. Yes, we may speak with an accent and may wear different clothes, but isn’t that what diversity is about?

My partner was recently asked “isn’t your girlfriend is Indian…. does she smell?” I was surprised that this level of bias existed at a senior level.

A potential Indian candidate recently told me they he has been told to change his name to Gary as it would open more doors.

I am often asked why I didn’t revert to my maiden name post my divorce. Well most Australians cannot pronounce my first name and my surname “Smiles” builds assumptions on my background, creates curiosity and doors open. However, if I was Sadhana Jeraj, I would face levels of conscious and unconscious bias like many other migrants.

Far too many times smart, intelligent, ethnic women are not respected, valued nor are their opinions listened to. I often say to people that I have had to learn to think like a “white” woman. I have often had to discard my experiences from Fiji to only use those I’ve learned in Australia.

As a woman of colour in a male dominated industry I stand out. However, I have had the courage to use my differences to my advantage and build my brand.

As leaders, we need to ensure that our existing teams are curious about different cultures and the commonalities that exist.

Our hiring decisions must not have the lenses of unconscious bias and we can achieve this by simply removing gender and cultural background questions.

Many applicants today are first generation Australians with ethnic names who speak with a broad Aussie accent. They also still have the advantage of growing up in a dual cultural environment. How fabulous is that for the businesses that eventually hire them?

Leaders also need to understand the challenges women of diverse cultural backgrounds may face at home. Despite their ambitions and career aspirations they may be facing the challenges of returning home to husbands, mothers and in-laws who are not supportive of their desire to work.

Leaders need to assess how culturally diverse their organisations are and then put in place targets to reduce the gaps. I am proud to lead a brand in Victoria that is diverse in the representation of women in leadership but also within ethnic representations. We connect with our communities, which creates tolerance and
understanding with our clients and each other.

Far too often I am approached by women at conferences thanking me for pointing out the lack of diversity in the room and workplaces. They often speak to me about what they need to do to get noticed and bridge the gap.

Well here are a few tips:

  1. Ensure that you become the best blend of yourself and the Australian culture. You don’t need to choose one over the other.
  2. Share the uniqueness of your festivals and family
  3. Bring native food to work that you know your colleagues will like
  4. Dress for success
  5. Invest in your brand, use your differences to your advantage
  6. If you have connections that will be an asset to your business then use them, especially if they are offshore
  7. Find a sponsor or someone in your organisation who understands your career aspirations and helps open doors
  8. Have honest conversation with your leaders on what holds you back and your ambitions
  9. Call out biased behaviour
  10. Join networks that will recognise your talent

Interestingly, this list is really no different for those women who are not from culturally diverse backgrounds.

As leaders, how do we start this journey of making sure our businesses reflect our communities? I believe we need to train our employees on cultural inclusion and the impact of bias and racism – not just within the business but in the community.

Examples include:

  • Change forms that ask for gender and cultural backgrounds and genuinely interview candidates based on skill sets and experience
  • Ensure that culturally diverse women do not become invisible in your organisation

As a minority leader – not just as a woman but a woman of colour – this is not an issue I can leave at the door. I challenge my co-leaders to step up and keep the conversation going. To commit to the changes not just for the financial benefits of your organisation but more so for the connection with your clients and people who choose to work in your organisations.

I hope this study will be the first of many. Something that will be picked up by the mainstream media and business leaders and we will start to see the colours of our community reflected in our companies.

Sadhana Smiles is Chief Executive Officer of one of the state’s fastest growing real estate brands, Harcourts Victoria. One of only two female CEO’s in her sector, commonly referred to as the “boy’s club”, Sadhana has created a brand that has placed her amongst her peers as a thought leader, industry commentator, corporate activist and a contemporary feminist.

With our so-called agile, flexible, forward-thinking business community, it’s astonishing that we haven’t been able to effectively tap into the ‘mum’ workforce.

Returning to work after maternity leave

Here’s a recent example. Two mums – both having worked successfully in one of the world’s leading tech companies – had their children and, after their maternity leave, wanted to come back on a part-time basis. Both mothers, aware of each other’s similar requirements, identified a role in the organisation that they could job share and were more than qualified to do. It seemed like a match made in heaven; they could keep developing their careers, parent their children before and after childcare, and nurture their self-worth. The business would have two highly skilled and dedicated employees, loyal and experienced, to help develop the workforce.

Each mum presented a proposal to the organisation which included rotations as well as extra advantages for it, such as flexibility to cover each other with sick and holiday leave, etc. The organisation – one known for being a self-pronounced world leader in workplace environment and benefits – quickly knocked back the proposal, as the executives couldn’t comprehend the value in having these well-qualified mums job share a management role.

This is just one example of many I have come across, and it’s not because job sharing or part-time work hasn’t been available for many years – it doesn’t appear to be encouraged in career-focused roles.

My own experience as a mum

I was lucky to have been able to keep my ‘hand in’ with my chosen career path when I had my children. I could work in my role during school hours, as well as having the flexibility to work from home during the school holidays.

However, this was more than 15 years ago, when the mobile phone was a brick and a 54k modem was a thing. I can’t tell you how great it felt to have a job that was meaningful and contributed to the growth of the business. My colleagues were supportive and, because of their dedication to the company and each other, I never wanted to let them down. I wanted to remain a valuable member of the team, and I often worked more hours than expected. There were numerous times when I sat at sports grounds after school, tapping away on my laptop as I waited to be my children’s ‘taxi’.

It’s also important to note that this was when permanent part-time had only just started, with ‘casual’ status being the norm for many women in part-time work. This meant mums weren’t being paid any superannuation or given any other benefits like paid leave.

The company I was fortunate enough to work for wasn’t a new breed either. In fact, it had been around for more than 90 years. It was the forward-thinking management and leadership that helped. Everyone was a winner. I was paid a pro rata salary commensurate for the role and hours, had the flexibility for the children, enjoyed the work, was successful and stayed with the organisation for more than seven years.

The work environment today

Today, it’s difficult to understand why there isn’t a united business community willing to tap into this amazing resource of working mothers. It’s not like we don’t have the technology or a strong culture of KPIs to measure performance.

So what’s the problem? Is there still an underlying question of trust, or is it the lack of understanding of how to develop a strong job-share program?

I certainly hope it’s not down to the thinking that you lose capability once you become a mum. The skills you learn while carrying out arguably the toughest but most rewarding role, teaches you many skills that can’t be learnt from trusty Google or your colleagues.

Patience, tolerance, understanding, empathy, just to name a few, are the skills you learn from having children – not to mention time management, decision-making and listening skills. They would all be attributes sought by any recruiter.

And how often do businesses look to get another set of eyes on a problem or an idea? In the case of job sharing you have fresh eyes across the role permanently, as well as the opportunity to nurture a culture of real collaboration.

Surely, we can think beyond massages, free food and gym memberships as benefits to attract great employees. I would argue that flexibility, collaboration, empathy and ultimately better communities are stronger benefits, and just some of the reasons to tap into one of the best resources that is currently underused because of stagnated thinking.

Raeleen Hooper is the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for Snap Print, Design and Websites.