Bias against women who seek startup funding is real and ongoing. Of the nearly 7,000 businesses funded by venture capital from 2011 - 2013, 85% had nary a woman on the executive team. Only 3% of the VC-funded ventures had a woman CEO. Conventional equity funding models clearly are ignoring or misinterpreting what women bring to the table. "Women approach business and life differently than men do," agrees New York angel investor Joanne Wilson, aka Gotham Gal. "Women operate and think differently." An ongoing frustration, she says, is that "men can't separate women's business lives from their personal ones."
Recently, Wilson attended a prospective funding meeting with a young woman CEO of a company she backs. "We were pitching to a man I know well," says Wilson, "and he said to the young woman, 'You're so beautiful. Why are you doing this?' He literally said that."
Wilson requested the man to step aside. In private, she asked how he'd feel if his son were pitching to her and she mentioned "how handsome he was and kept looking at his ass."
The funder was abashed. "I don't think men realize what's coming out of their mouth," says Wilson. "He said, "I never realized what I was doing.'"
Another New York investor wouldn't consider one of Wilson's woman-led firms because he "didn't want to invest in people who are pregnant," she says. "These old-school men think women can't have children and run a business." Understandably, women in startups also assume there's no place for having kids in entrepreneurship. Not long ago, a startup CEO called Wilson in a panic, asking for advice because she was pregnant. "What do I say to everyone?" the CEO asked. Wilson suggested she tell everyone how excited and joyful she was because she was going to have a baby. "There's no need to justify being pregnant. Men don't do that," she says. "They don't put their personal lives on hold."
Men in power are often uneasy when women don't stick to traditional gender roles or behaviors. "When a man pushes for a higher salary, he's viewed no differently by hiring managers, but when a woman negotiates for a higher salary, she's viewed as pushy and the hiring manager -- whether a man or a woman -- won't want to work with her," pointed out Victoria Budson, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, during a 2012 conference on gender intelligence.
All women in business must deal with stereotypical attitudes to greater or lesser degrees, and that puts more pressure on women who run companies. Instead of being able to simply get down to business, women must skirt the direct approach and manage men's expectations for sex roles and business practices.
A 5-foot 11-inch woman in 7-inch heels commands more talking time from investors
When young Australian founder Nikki Durkin was desperately seeking bridge financing to keep her Manhattan-based 99dresses ecommerce startup afloat in 2014, she said, "I'd be invited to cocktail parties full of VCs where I'd don my painful sky-high heels because I'd split-tested heels versus flats, and for some reason a 5-foot 11-inch woman in seven-inch heels commands more talking time and attention from investors than one in the comfy flat booties I wear to work. Apparently height gives you presence. Once or twice I'd have an investor asking if I knew what an angel was, or if I also modeled because of my height, or some other unintentionally patronizing comment that I doubt any guy would be subjected to. I learned to take it all in my high-heeled stride."
The impact of systemic underfunding and undervaluing of women's businesses constitutes an ongoing threat not only to women entrepreneurs but of course also to national and global economies. We're losing an extraordinary depth of talent and potential. If we did a better job of backing women's businesses, we would develop talent, inspire the next generation and spark more innovation.
Who decided that making babies means you can't make money?