How Envato became Australia’s coolest business for women to work at

Business Insider is the media partner for the NextGen in Business conference series, hosted by the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne in May and aimed at helping companies prepare for the multigenerational future. Use the code BizInsider-150
Cyan Ta’eed Supplied

Envato is one of the darlings of the Australian startup sector, a rare billion-dollar ‘unicorn’ in a field where failure is more usual than success.

But what makes the design marketplace stand out for many is the way it does business and treats its staff, and in particular the measures it has taken to get more women into the technology sector. This led to the company being named Australia’s Coolest Company for Women by JobAdvisor in 2015.

So how did Envato get to a point where it is seen as a pioneer in the tech industry?

Co-founder Cyan Ta’eed admits she was the only female employee for a long time, and championing female participation in the industry “wasn’t something that we’d set out to do”.

She explains: “When you’re first starting out a company, you convince one developer to come and work with you and then they convince their friend, and then they convince their friend. If you don’t have one woman developer, no woman wants to be the first woman developer in a culture of guys.”

“For quite a long time, it was me, a team of guys, we had one accountant who was a woman, eventually we had some HR people who were women. And we slowly started getting more women in the business, but they were in more traditionally female areas. It just happened that way, really. We weren’t doing anything and we honestly weren’t really thinking about it.”

The catalyst for a change in thinking in the company did not come from management, but a couple of male developers who were dismayed at the harassment of a female at an industry conference in the US. They approached management wanting them to sign a letter condemning what had happened.

Ta’eed adds: “The conversation we ended up having was, ‘Yes, while it’s good to sign this letter, but if we’re not actually doing anything within Envato to make it a great place for women to work, then what’s the point?’.

“There’s not point saying the words, you’ve actually got to back it up.”

The company challenged these men to start developing a program to make Envato more inclusive from a developer point of view.

Envato’s first challenge was its recruitment process, primarily because “we weren’t getting any women candidates in the first place”, despite having success in attracting women to other areas of the business.

That led to an overhaul of the language used in job ads, which for the development team were written by the developers themselves.

“They would write things like ‘You need to be a coding ninja’,” explains Ta’eed. “And we realised women don’t respond to that sort of language in the same way, or any other minorities respond generally in the same way as the majority.

“So while the developers we had might think ‘Yeah, I’m a coding ninja,’ potentially someone else might not. We had to work on making our language more inclusive. We had to go out of our way to advertise jobs and to be at events which the people that we wanted to attract were at.”

The interview process was another problem area. Things like the way coding tests were undertaken were overhauled to make them less intimidating, while the way people were assessed for a culture fit was also put under the microscope.

She says: “I remember having this really jarring experience where I was talking to the team about culture fit and somebody said, ‘Yeah of course, what I’m looking for is somebody I can have a beer with on a Friday night.’

“My stomach dropped and I thought, ‘No, no, no. That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing’. That’s somebody you want to hang out with, that shouldn’t be part of your decision making process.

“Generally speaking, we tend to like to hang with people who are like ourselves. So unconsciously, if we’re just going by that metric, we’ll just end up hiring lots of the same person, which is not what we’re trying to get to.”

While recruitment was a process-driven change the company has also been making more fundamental policy and structural changes to make it more attractive to women and people from minority groups.

“Diversity is everyone being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance,” explains Ta’eed. “So it’s really raised a lot of questions around how we communicate, how we set goals.”

Flexible working is a key pillar for the company. For Envato, that’s not just a start early, finish early policy, but embracing truly flexible practices, including allowing employees to work from overseas for up to three months each year.

This policy is particularly popular with their Millennial staff members who do not have commitments like a mortgage or children, and therefore have more flexibility. But Ta’eed admits this flexibility requires more structured thinking from the business itself to make these policies work.

She explains: “We have needed to really up the quality and the expertise of our managers. We’re really, really structured around ensuring that those KPIs are set in place throughout the structure of the business, so it all makes sense cohesively. Everyone knows exactly where we’re going. There’s really clear metrics that managers can use to gauge how their team members are performing.

“We’ve also taken on more of a philosophy of servant leadership, which is effectively that the managers are there to serve their team, to try and support them to succeed. It’s meant that we do a lot of management training, but it’s the only way that something like that, a 100% flexible work environment where you’ve got really diverse people coming together to work, it’s the only way that sort of thing is going to work.”

These are just a couple of the policies Envato has put in place, with other initiatives including external remuneration reviews to help close any gender pay gaps, and the company backing Code Like a Girl, an initiative to get more women into technology roles.

The impact is there to see in the numbers – especially in the technical side of the business, which has gone from 7% of workers being female in 2014 to more than 17% last year, a growth rate made more impressive by the fact Envato’s workforce has expanded rapidly in that time.

But Ta’eed admits the company is still very much on its journey, and has really only just “got our head around it”.

For Ta’eed the work continues with ongoing education for managers, training them to think about things like unconscious bias, and to set out their own programs for making the company more diverse. Ultimately, she says, it is not something that “can be foisted upon people”.

“But sometimes you’ll find that not everyone is on board, and that’s okay,” she adds. “If you consider diversity and inclusion as a spectrum, you’ve got people who are maybe super resistant on one end and people who are really pro at the other end.

“Having that spectrum within your organization is okay, as long as they’re all being educated so they’re all heading more towards the diverse and inclusion space.

“I always think it’s a good thing if after working for two years at Envato someone understands diversity and inclusion more. Otherwise, if we’re only hiring people who are 100% on the diversity and inclusion train, then we’re not actually changing hearts and minds. We’re just in a little bubble. It’s helping people shift their thinking.”