Why women entrepreneurs must help other women entrepreneurs

By Terri Friel, Program & Strategic Director @VentureConnects      

"We tell our story about how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women don't think you have to—it's been done. It's not done," Albright continued. … “And just remember, there's a special place in Hell for women who don't help each other." - Madeline Albright 2016

I’m one of those women who has been fencing with gender issues my whole professional career, first as a chemical engineer and later as a professor of business. It was very upsetting and frustrating as a young graduate to be seen as “less than” or to become a target of their “affections” whether paternal or aggressive by the men with whom I worked.  It was everywhere.  In the days before Title 9 and before EEOC was well-developed, we were on our own.  And women were not helping each other at all.  Add daily gender bias fencing to the effort to get your job done and you understand why women could decide it’s not worth it. Our career progress has been hampered by these issues but often responses to just quit fighting have been derided as “not serious,” “the mommy track,” or “not ambitious.” On the other side, those who tried to override these by focusing on their career were labelled “bitch,” “aggressive,”  “too demanding,” and “not feminine enough.”  It’s a teeter totter ride that no woman can win…alone.  

Lately there have been reports of Venture Capitalist behavior that harkens back to those “bad old days.” Subsequently to being outed, these “gentlemen” (term used loosely) have resigned, apologized and generally made some mea culpas but this is the tip of the iceberg in my opinion. From my experience, it takes quite a bit to push a woman over the edge to reporting these behaviors. Why? Often the women’s accusations are countered with accusations of unprofessional behavior, aggression, mal-adaption to the business world, etc. Who wants to be known as the woman who can’t cut it and doesn’t understand how things “really” work?  Who will work with her afterwards? The price of making an accusation can be quite high. Unless there are corroborating witnesses or other women who chime in, the lone woman can be hung out to dry and end her professional career by opening her mouth.  

Add to this, recent research that appears to indicate that women who say the same exact thing as men are often not understood in the same way.  The filters we all have, men and women, tend to undermine the professionalism and power of a woman’s statements.  For example, Meghan Sumner, linguistics professor of Stanford recently published a study about gender dynamics of voice processing. She asked men and women to listen to a word spoken by a man or a woman and tell her the first word that comes to mind. The word was Academy. The response by both genders after the man spoke was “School” but after the woman spoke the response was “Award.” Indicating that the man’s spoken word was assumed to be about serious topics while the woman’s was assumed to be about movie stars.  She demonstrated that children as young as 4 years old were processing information using gender specific voice information to infer meaning. What does this mean?  Her conclusion made me laugh: “Lean in may not be the best way for women to achieve their goals.” To that I said, “duh.”  It’s not as if leaning in has not been tried by women for decades.  In fact, in my consulting with entrepreneurs as a mentor and consultant, I find many women are discouraged by male counterparts from pursuing their ideas for companies. They are variously told the idea is “not scalable,”  “won’t make money,” “doesn’t make sense.” Ideas that appear to fit the gender bias like fashion or food are more accepted while tech innovation ideas are viewed askance by male advisors. While this is anecdotal, I’ve spoken to many women investors who agree they hear much the same things from their women owned applicant companies.

So what can women do to help each other?  First we must become the champions of other women. We must do this assertively, kindly, and gently. I’m not advocating a coup of males in the world. We will all be better off if we can combine the talents of both genders. That was demonstrated in recent research into the effect of women on corporate boards. “Clearly, financial measures excel where women serve on corporate boards,” said Ilean H. Lang, of Catalyst. “This Catalyst study again demonstrates the very strong correlation between corporate performance and gender diversity. We know that diversity, well-managed, produces better results.  And smart companies appreciate that diversifying their boards with women can lead to more independence, innovation, and good governance and maximize their company’s performance.” Some of the results cited were that ROE improved by at least 53% and Return on Sales by at least 42%. This parallels other studies conducted on this topic by KPMG and several European studies.  

Thus women must help each other to achieve these opportunities. There are investment funds that are focusing on women entrepreneurs. These are a good sign but they are less than 10% of the whole investment fund universe. My recent goal is to develop a comprehensive list of such investment groups and to attract more women entrepreneurs to apply. At any networking event, I often scan the group and observe a sea of men in the center and individual women standing at the periphery. I often introduce myself to these women and make one other introduction bringing them into the larger group. Such small things matter a great deal. Build, reinforce, encourage, empower and develop women when you can. It will fuel our economic engine and build stronger more productive companies for everyone.

References:

http://www.catalyst.org/media/companies-more-women-board-directors-experience-higher-financial-performance-according-latest  July 17, 2017

http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Venture-capitalist-takes-leave-amid-sexual-11243151.php, July 17. 2017

http://www.weeklystandard.com/albright-at-clinton-rally-special-place-in-hell-for-women-who-dont-help-each-other/article/2000960  July 17, 2017

http://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-venture-capital-sexual-harassment-20170630-story.html July 2017

https://www.nyse.com/publicdocs/nyse/listing/Making_a_Great_Board_RHR_White_Paper.pdf  July 17, 2017

https://hbr.org/2017/07/why-sexual-harassment-is-more-of-a-problem-in-venture-capital  July 27, 2017

http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2015/making-our-voices-heard  July 17, 2017

https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/06/30/venture-capital-sexual-harassment-scandal/103336512/  July 17, 2017

https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2017/06/25/venture-capitalists-pledge-fight-sexual-harassment-discrimination/U4uZvNo5nUQyoyY2vLnhBM/story.html  July 17, 2017




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