Women who are founders, co-founders or CEOs all face similar challenges unique to their gender.
In order to maintain the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business owners, these issues must be addressed.
Given that the odds are stacked against women when they enter the startup scene, it is critical to explore how many unspoken gendered issues manifest, in order to build awareness, bridge the gap and explore what progress looks like.
The Juggle Struggle
Balancing the demands of a startup or side hustle with the mental load of being a devoted partner, parent and full-time or part-time employee is exhausting.
The struggle to juggle multiple responsibilities between work and personal life is a constant topic of conversation within the One Roof community, a digital membership for women leaders and entrepreneurs. Women continue to grapple with finding a way to devote time to growing a business and raising a family; existing at the intersection of motherhood and ambition and trying their best to keep it all together.
However, as the number of female founders grows and as more women come together to share and create female-focused ecosystems and support networks, the village it takes to raise a startup is also evolving.
Female founder communities such as One Roof create a safe space for women to share their stories, struggles, experiences and learn from each other. Until government policies and socio-economic systems improve support for women in business, these founders are forced to build the support systems they need themselves.
No Girls Allowed
Outside of the pursuit of elusive work-life balance, the biggest reason women seek out communities like One Roof, is to feel less lonely. Running a business or validating a startup idea can be an isolating experience for many women who don’t have a support network of like minded peers. The startup landscape is largely male dominated and women continue to be in the minority group.
In the Australian Government’s Boosting Female Founders Initiative report, female founders expressed difficulty in accessing supportive networks and information to assist their startups.
A key resource that women are locked out of is the ‘boys club’ that pervades most business environments and the startup scene is no exception. These informal ‘clubs’ provide connections, information, funding, knowledge and experiences that women are not often privy to.
One founder confided that “sometimes you do not feel as welcome, or taken as seriously, as men. Most pitch situations are to all men – it’s intimidating. Most founders are men and will help each other out with questions but women don’t have access to the same founder network.”
Society dictates that men already have a seat at the table, so they play a critical part in welcoming women to take up space at the table or adding more chairs to the tables of power and decision making.
Small change for women seeking funding
Women-led startups received a measly 2.3% of VC funding in 2020, despite evidence thatvfemale-founded and co-founded startups achieve outstanding returns on investment.
Studies havevshown that they generate 10% more revenue than male-led companies and earn 35% higher return,voperate business more efficiently with less capital and are more likely to achieve higher valuations,vmaking women-owned companies better investments for financial backers.
However, the lethal combination of unconscious bias and the lack of female representation amongst VCs creates a vicious cycle of exclusion. A Babson College report found that venture capitalists tended to select for homogeneity and to invest in startups run by people of their own “tribe.”
For example, a Stanford-educated investor will want to back a Stanford alumni’s business. This works both ways in that VC firms with women partners are more than twice as likely to invest in companies with a woman on the executive team and more than three times as likely to invest in companies with women CEOs.
Hence, the importance of female-focused angel investors and investment funds, such as Scale Investors, SheEO and the newest VC fund on the block ALIVIA as well as female-focused accelerator programs including Atto and Springboard Enterprises Australia in the startup ecosystem cannot be understated.
The motherhood penalty
Female entrepreneurs often face gendered questions that their male counterparts aren’t as likely to encounter. According to the Harvard Business Review, women are quizzed about the potential for losses while men are asked about the potential for gains.
Further, female founders are routinely interrogated about their plans to have children as an indicator of future success.
However, glass ceilings are made to be broken and one pregnant CEO recently shattered hers, resetting the benchmark for future female founders to follow.
Joanna Griffiths, founder of the intimate wear brand, Knix Wear, was in her third trimester of her pregnancy with twins when she began meeting with potential investors. She held fast to her personal rule of declining money from anyone who questioned her ability to lead the fast-growing startup either during her pregnancy or after she became a mother.
Griffiths said: “Those unspoken rules…that you can’t fundraise while pregnant, you can’t switch jobs while pregnant, you can’t get a promotion while pregnant, don’t have to apply and they shouldn’t apply.”
Griffiths went on to raise $53 million in capital.
Goldfish in a shark tank
Female founders entering the ‘shark tank’ style startup ecosystem have to work harder to educate investors and defend their value. The startup world measures success by money, prestige and fast growth.
However, many women founders are driven by a social mission and desire to create a positive impact on the world. The standard shark-tank style metrics can be challenging to reconcile against the impact measurement imperative of a social undertaking.
Women can become distracted, disoriented and disillusioned by the startup scene’s systemic definition of achievement.
It’s no surprise that the report on the Australian Government’s Boosting Female Founders Initiative thus found that ‘attracting investors to financially support (their) startup in a male dominated system’ was a major barrier to accessing funding.
One founder disclosed that “women are told they need to change [their] instinctive business models, problems [they] want to solve and the pace and scale [they] want to grow these businesses to be funded by the current male system.”
The unicorn teardown
Being a female founder is hard enough without being criticised for the extent to which they are able to progress other women entrepreneurs.
Over centuries, women have been socialised to exemplify their caring, generous, nice and polite natures. These consensus-building qualities encouraged in young girls are ironically juxtaposed against women who speak up for gender equality, often depicted as bossy or aggressive.
Women, especially those in leadership positions, are held to a higher standard, placed on a higher pedestal and easier to target.
The stories of powerful female founders who have been forced to step back at the companies they created has been well documented. In the past two years, numerous women at the helm of fast-growing startups that emphasised feminist or socially driven missions, have stepped down or been forced out of their company; amid employee allegations of mismanagement or mistreatment.
These include Audrey Gelman from The Wing, Tyler Haney of activewear startup Outdoor Voices; Steph Korey of luggage company Away; Christene Barberich of women’s digital publication Refinery29; Yael Aflalo of dressmaker and fashion brand Reformation; Jen Gotch of retailer Ban.do;
Shannon Spanhake of workplace-benefits platform Cleo; and Nancy Lublin of mental-health platform Crisis Text Line and more.
The sample size to determine whether these founders experienced deliberate media teardowns or fair retribution is ultimately too small but the commonality is that all of these companies were started by women.
It is disappointing to see reduced female founder representation overall in the startup world and that these particular founders gave the press, public and their customers reason to be targeted.
This mass exodus has a ripple effect on current and emerging women entrepreneurs, who may be apprehensive of impending gender backlash.
However, it remains important for women and supportive men to understand that reality is more nuanced than attributing all female founder failings to the entire gender, as well as differentiating between legitimate company failings and sensationalised takedowns.
* To engage with more ‘Unspoken’ issues, join the conversation with One Roof at their week-long conference that is bringing to the stage unspoken conversations affecting ambitious women in business. Expect honest, raw and real conversations.
One Roof will dig deep to talk about the challenges women face, how current social expectation is negatively impacting both men and women, how we can redefine and better measure success and so much more. 5 Days. 5 panel events. 16 diverse and exceptional speakers.
Head to weareoneroof.com/unspokenconference.
- Frances Goh is community manager at One Roof