The gender pay gap at the top of London tech

Kelsey Traher, March 8, 2019 5 min read

This is a guest post by Kelsey Traher, COO at Marvel & Adam Popeck, COO at Raising IT, with insights from COO Stories

The London tech community has often felt a bit friendlier and more accessible than Silicon Valley. We’re European! We’re liberal! We’re doing an OK job, right?

Well, the results from a 2018 survey of 76 operational leaders working in tech companies, startups and scaleups from the COO Stories community in London, is something of a wakeup call. Our survey showed a gender pay gap in top-level ops positions in London tech, consistent with the national average. Controlling for company size, stage and years of experience, our survey shows that female COOs in tech are consistently underpaid for doing the same job, at the same level, in the same industry, in the same city, as men, with an average pay gap of over 12%.

The survey respondents

The survey was to members of the COO Stories tech community, where every member is an Ops leader at a fast-growth startup (titles like COO/ VP Ops/ Director of Ops).

Started in 2015, COO Stories was initially an invitation-only email list and forum for Ops leaders in London’s tech community to ask questions and advice of industry peers. It’s now home to 250 COOs and ops leaders, run by Kelsey Traher, COO at Marvel and Ben Gateley, COO at CharlieHR, with regular events, community values, sponsors, and an international chapter in Berlin.

Community action

On one level it’s perhaps unsurprising that the survey revealed a gender pay gap not much better than the national average – across the UK, men earned 18.4% more than women in April 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). But on the other hand, COOs working in London tech startups is a such a tightly controlled group – and they are all already the most senior operational role in their organisations.

Gender pay disparity usually speaks to structural inequality where, for example, a company may be more likely to employ women in lower paid positions, and men in higher paid positions. Notwithstanding the differences in what the COO role may mean across different companies, everyone who responded to our survey is already the most senior ops person in their respective business, and in the same type of company (tech startups and scaleups), in the same industry, the same city, and with the same number of years’ experience behind them in a senior role.

It’s as close to equal work as you can get when comparing between companies, and if it were the same company, paying these COOs differently would be against the law.

We’ve been running the COO Stories community for the past four years, and can say that without exception, the work of ops in a fast-growth tech company is not for the faint of heart. It is pressured, hard work, long hours, you take it home with you, and you give it your all.

And it’s time for female tech leaders to be paid fairly for that work.

Yes, women need to know their worth and negotiate for more, and we hope that the data we’re sharing here will help with that. Anecdotally, we already know that two female leaders in our community have done just that – using the results of this survey to successfully negotiate for a higher salary, which is absolutely the reason it is so powerful to share this.

But beyond leaving the onus all on women to fight for fairness, investors, founders, budget setters and decision makers of both genders need to value and pay women COOs more.

It’s complicated and simultaneously incredibly simple. Complicated because there are structural and deeply ingrained prejudices and biases against women, and favouring men, at play, which we all (women included) need to work hard and proactively to train ourselves out of. And it’s simple in that we’ve gathered enough data to be able to say with a fair amount of certainty what a fair salary for a tech COO is. So just pay women that.  

A couple of other interesting things we found:

  1. Our survey shows that co-founders pay themselves on average less than non-founders. Women are significantly less likely to be a co-founder, so the fact that non-founder women are not paid as much as non-founder men makes the pay gap all the more stark.
  2. Female COOs are more likely to feel underpaid – 63% of female respondents said they felt “somewhat or significantly underpaid”, vs. 35% of male respondents.
  3. The sample sizes for any ethnicity other than White were too small to be able to draw any conclusions, which is in itself disappointing, and certainly a topic for another day.

The hard facts – the survey findings

Co-founders have lower salaries than non-co-founders

There is a noticeable gender pay gap observed

Even taking company size into account, female COOs earn less than their male counterparts

Female COOs are more likely to feel underpaid

Transparency leads to fairness

If sharing this data feels a little exposing, consider the fact that pay inequality only exists in the first place because salaries are so shrouded in mystery. Nobody really knows what a fair and market rate salary is. So, we end up where we are because of ingrained prejudice, men asking for more/women for less, and a fundamental business tension of wanting to get the best quality candidate for the lowest amount that candidate will accept.

Being transparent with the data is the first step to addressing the structural imbalance, and we hope that this will be helpful for all genders negotiating a COO salary at a tech company in London.

If you’re hiring for a COO, take the responsibility to pay fairly, seriously. And if you’re going for a tech COO role, do not accept less than what all your male peers are already being paid for the same job.

diversity, Growth, Women in tech, London, Late Stage