Tech startups aren’t just a bunch of brogrammers, I swear

I remember my interview with Izabella – my now-boss – vividly. I was all worked up about interviewing for a tech startup with absolutely no tech background. All the hearsay and anecdotes about “brogrammer” culture that preceded my interview didn’t help, either. Nerves and Red Bull had me spitting out, “So is the bro culture really that bad?”

I was met with a deadpan response: “No. I have no tolerance for that.”

I later learned that every single woman she’s interviewed has asked that same question. There seems to be a widespread fear among women that tech startups are male-dominated and misogynistic. Even though Sensibill is growing at an exponential rate and we have plenty of female employees, there’s still a general lack of female candidates applying.

“What that tells me is that there’s some degree of self-selection happening away from the start up world,” Izabella says.

Which is devastating, because nothing about Sensibill feels even remotely bro-y or sexist to me. I’ve never felt more respected and supported, and I’m sure Sensibill isn’t the only startup in Toronto who has “figured it out.” This got me thinking – if women are avoiding applying for jobs at startups because of this perceived brogrammer culture, maybe we aren’t doing a good enough job of showcasing counterexamples?

I’m in a communications role, so naturally my inclination was, “Let’s put a better message out there!” So that’s what I did. I sat down with my fellow female co-workers to chat about how they felt as “women in tech” and to see what they thought stood out about Sensibill through that lens. Here’s what I found:

1. Female leadership is normalized at Sensibill

Without a doubt, a (major) reason our company is the way that it is, is because of our Chief Operating Officer – Izabella Gabowicz. Having a female in an executive leadership position basically dictates the gender dynamics at the office. It also helps that Izabella is, well…Izabella.

Izabella Gabowicz

Anyone that knows or works with her knows that she’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she attributes much of her success to this quality. “I’ve been raised Eastern European, Polish. We’re a blunt culture. You have an opinion – you say it. You talk. There’s none of this qualification of ‘Should I be saying it this way? Should I pad it? Should I soften it? No – just say it. That’s how I was brought up. I didn’t realize – apparently – there were rules that women were supposed to be following. That’s worked well because I haven’t held myself back.”

“A healthy dose of cockiness is always good. Society socializes it out of girls but I never went that route. If you believe you can do something, you may as well put yourself out there and figure it out afterwards.”

Her mentality has either spread like osmosis or has at least attracted like-minded women, because you’ll be hardpressed to find anyone at our office who isn’t comfortable sharing an opinion or tackling a challenging project.

“I’m fortunate that I was working at IBM. There were plenty of female leaders and great diversity programs. Everybody who spoke to me interacted with me as a competent individual and never as anything other than that,” Izabella recounts. She’s quick to add that this isn’t the experience that every woman has had, and for that reason she’s made it a big part of her mission as Sensibill’s COO to create a workplace where female leadership is normalized. Where your gender – and colour, religion, and sexual orientation – is irrelevant.

Without actually harping on being a woman. She explains, “It’s like when someone says, ‘You look good for your age’. It’s not really a compliment. It’s backhanded. I feel the same way about these ‘successful women in tech’ features. Why is being a woman a qualifier? I’m a competent individual, who happens to be a woman. Not the other way around. That bothers me. I don’t like that.”

But the goal isn’t to plug women into leadership roles for the sake of having women in leadership roles. The goal is to genuinely celebrate excellence – irrespective of its source.

“What I find is that people – whatever bias they may or may not have – like the path of least resistance. If you’re the kind of person who can solve their problems, they don’t care who you are. Your sex no longer comes into the equation.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“[Sensibill] is evolving beyond having to take stock of how many team members are a ‘woman in tech’, and ferociously into how many are a ‘supported member of our team’. Having strong female representation in every arm of our organization has made all the difference. There’s no fight to constantly have to assert myself.”

– Sonya, Product Marketing Specialist

  1. We have built a culture based on three values: passion, integrity and excellence

Our executive team insists that the key to this widespread inclusion is building a culture of passion, integrity and excellence (PIE). Yes, you also have to really like pie to work here.  


“I want to build a culture where I’m surrounded by excellent professionals who have real passion for what they do. Who take pride in their work. That kind of environment is a lot more inclusive of diverse backgrounds. Gender doesn’t matter when you build a culture based on these principles. When you have one thing in common – your love for your work – nothing else matters,” Izabella says.

“It’s so motivating when you start your day and end your day with people who are like you, who have the same passion as you. We love our job. There are less roadblocks when you feel that you’re part of a team.” – Prashanthi, QA Analyst

To maintain this culture, our talent manager, Holly, is diligent about  values-based recruiting. “Being excellent at your job is one thing, but being able and willing to share that knowledge with your coworkers is a much trickier bill to fit. We look for people who love to learn and to share what they’re learning. Learning is the major theme here.” 


  1. [ANNOUNCEMENT]: You don’t need to code to work in tech!

Even though we’re primarily a tech company, a good portion of our roles are not necessarily tech related. Women without tech backgrounds avoid non-technical roles at startups because they’re too intimidated of the industry at large. Our Operations Manager, Jaclyn, reminisces on her first week at Sensibill. “I sat through my first demo and kept hearing the term ‘SDK’, and all I could think of was the steakhouse. I was so intimidated thinking that I’d never get all this jargon down. But you get so immersed in it, you sit in on Lunch and Learns, you ask tons of questions over Slack, and you just pick it up. Next thing you know you’re tech-fluent.” Her advice: ask a million questions. “This isn’t a culture of ‘I already know everything and you know nothing’. We’re all learning together.”

“There’s other opportunities for women, you don’t need to be a developer to be a professional woman in tech. There’s so many layers to tech companies these days, where years ago there weren’t. This isn’t the 90s. It’s not a bunch of guys in their basement anymore.” – Hailey, Account Manager


When you’re there, you might actually realize that you are “techy” after all. Our Data Operations Lead, Krista, has a background in show business and is now running our data and analytics team. Startups are inherently grounds for learning and growth – you just need to take that first step.


A final note

I am fully aware that there are deeper, systemic issues at play here. I understand that women aren’t simply self-selecting away from startups, they’re massively underrepresented in technology, science and engineering programs (STEM) in university, too. Women account for 66% of all university graduates, yet they’re accounting for only 39% of STEM graduates in Canada. Barbara, our full-stack developer, has a background in Math & Physics with a degree in Computer Programming. Predominantly male fields. When I was chatting with her about her experience in tech, she laughed that she was usually the only woman in the classroom. And though she hasn’t had any notably bad experiences, she talks of the pervasive feeling of Imposter Syndrome – feeling like a fraud, or not good enough – something women feel in spades compared to their male counterparts.

There’s a lot more to this story than simple self-selection. I’m not trying to downplay the adversity women face in the workforce, and would never attempt to diminish the complexity of gender inequality with a blog listicle. I’m also aware that we’re exceptionally lucky by virtue of being in Toronto and that most women around the world don’t have these same privileges. All I’m trying to do is talk about the inclusive culture that my team has built…and brag about staving off brogrammers from creeping into our standups.

If you want to learn more about our work culture or are interested in joining our team, peep our job postings!