Mar 8, 2020 - Inside 23andMe

Women in tech: a look inside the culture of 23andMe


By Janie F. Shelton, Ph.D., MPH, Senior Scientist at 23andMe


As a woman in tech, articles about Silicon Valley’s bad behavior often catch my eye. Alongside the descriptions of the ping-pong tables, gluten-free snacks, and the on-tap craft beer, are stories that describe the underside of tech culture that is often just as hostile to women as the broader corporate world.


Being an innovative company doesn’t always translate into creating an innovative work culture. Fortunately, there are places that do both. I know because I work at one — a groundbreaking biotech company that embraces gender diversity. For International Women’s Day, I want to highlight what gender parity looks like in business.

Comparing Percentages

With recent evidence that gender equity in leadership improves the bottom line and so much conversation about the value of creating a culture where this is possible, it’s worth taking a look at a company with a workforce almost equally split between men and women and with 42 percent of leadership roles occupied by women. Even more dramatic is that 60 percent of the vice president and above positions at 23andMe are occupied by women, and, of course, we are led by a woman.

Only about 5 percent of the S&P 500 companies have women CEOs, and women occupy just 26 percent of the executive or senior management positions at those companies.  The numbers for tech companies are worse.

A recent study done on diversity in tech by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission found that tech companies employed fewer women than the nation as a whole and that fewer women served in leadership roles. The numbers from that six-year-old study found that only about 20 percent of women were in leadership roles at tech companies. Looking at the private sector in general, women served in 29 percent of the leadership roles. 

Stalled Progress

It’s instructive to look at gender equity not just because of what it means for women, but for what it means for diversity more broadly. While some statistics show modest improvements for women in the last decade, we’re still far away from true equality in opportunity for women.

A World Economic Forum report found that gender parity efforts in the United States were “stalling.” Estimates are that compensation for women across a wide range of sectors won’t reach parity with men until 2120.

With a few exceptions, the picture isn’t much better in Silicon Valley which has seen greater wealth creation than any region in history.

My Story

I stuck my toe in the water of tech at the age of 35, when I was 5-months pregnant. Perhaps not the best time to be looking for a job, but what I encountered was a culture welcoming of women, and parenthood.

In fact, when I had finished with negotiations and accepted the job offer I was wincing when I told the 23andMe HR director I was expecting. She immediately responded with, “Congratulations! We love babies and children and hire a lot of pregnant people. Here are some of the great benefits I’d like to tell you about…”

Fast-forward several years, I was promoted while out on maternity leave with my second daughter. I found this remarkable because it happened to my colleague too. It might be a commentary on the sad state of affairs for how women expect to be treated during pregnancy and maternity leave, but the impact is you are signaling to women at the company that yes, you can have a child and yes, you can also be a valued colleague entrusted with increasing responsibility.

The Whole Person

A culture that welcomed the “whole-person” at work was so different,  that I started to ask leaders to take their formula and shout it from the rooftops. But then I decided that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. 


Creating culture starts and ends with your values, but when women aren’t represented in leadership, how do those values get established? Here are a few observations about how 23andMe built a workplace that is welcoming to women by welcoming the “whole-person.” This is particularly important for women, who in traditional corporate culture have to hide who they are outside of work and their responsibilities at home or risk their career. 


Here are a few things we do at 23andMe that I believe support women: 

Give challenging projects to women, and then let them take credit for their success. 

23andMe signed some amazing deals in the past two years that were executed by majority-female teams. One of the most important agreements the company has ever entered into came together because of the women that made it happen, all while raising very young children.


Giving visibility into other women succeeding not only gives credit where credit is due, but it shows other women — and men — in the company that yes you can have a family and be a critical asset to the company. 


Recruit VPs who care about work-life balance. 

At 23andMe, 42 percent of director-level positions and above are held by women. Not only that, many people in leadership roles are parents. If you want to have a family and be an executive, it is challenging to imagine how you might do that unless you see it done. 


That matters because you want your employees to see a path forward. You want them to feel inspired to work hard to get to the next level. People naturally want to achieve and do well. But the demands of the home can create feelings of shame and underachievement in the workplace. It is liberating, inspiring, and motivating to see a VP leaving at 4 pm on some days to pick up his or her kids. It’s refreshing to see a VP take the afternoon for a field trip with his or her child’s class. And those leaders support employees doing the same.

As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, if you are a person in a higher-level role, “leave loudly.”

Again the message should be that, yes you have to get your job done, but that doesn’t mean you neglect your responsibilities at home. 

When times get tough, have your team members’ backs. 

People get married. They have children. They get divorced. They get sick. They lose parents. Support them through this. At 23andMe, I have heard our founder and CEO talk about this as an underlying management philosophy. 


Why does this matter for gender equity at work? Because women shoulder much of the emotional and physical labor of keeping families together. If you treat people well during these major life events, you acknowledge and welcome the whole person in the workplace. And, by the way, this approach helps everyone who has a full life and commitments outside of work. It’s not just for people with children.


Celebrate pregnancy and welcome children. 

An employee’s son, testing out the kids’ room at 23andMe’s office.

Anne Wojcicki, the CEO, and co-founder of 23andMe loves kids. She brings her kids into the office. She encouraged the creation of a fun kid-friendly space in our headquarters where we have games and a play structure for our kids when they are visiting. There are also several very well appointed “mother’s rooms,” where we can breastfeed or pump. And Anne has never been so excited to talk to me as when I was pregnant. She is so happy when people have babies. She encourages you to bring them into the office. And wait for the show stopper – she personally offered to babysit for me. Let me repeat that last one. The CEO of my company offered to babysit my child. 


Now, if you are a CEO, don’t worry, you don’t have to babysit anyone’s kids. Company leaders set an example that can reach all the way down the organization to foster gender equity. Supporting women during and just after pregnancy, when they are most vulnerable and most at-risk for leaving, pays off in the long run. It builds deeper commitments from those women and retaining talent. It’s the kind of whole-person positivity that makes one actually feel good about their job and the place they work. 


Creating and nurturing culture is hard. But intentional steps to welcome the whole person into the workplace adds more value than you might think. Not just for women, but for everybody. 


When a male engineer recently told me why he came to 23andMe instead of going to Google or Facebook he said he got sick of the bro culture. He wanted more work-life balance. 


Instead of adding another perk like laundry service or a sushi bar to get an edge on hiring during boom-times in Silicon Valley,  tech companies should optimize for woman-positive, whole-self work culture. 


I’ll take it.

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