Where Does Implicit Gender Bias In The Startup World Come From
Last Thursday, I had an extremely thought-provoking conversation with an attorney-turned-investor. Out of the incredible array of topics our open-ended exploration on the topic of diversity — geographically and demographically — led us to, there was one thing in particular that I had to double click on.
She shared, “Men typically get asked promotion questions. ‘What does your upside look like?’ Whereas women and other underrepresented founders get asked prevention questions. ‘How do you prevent your startup from going out of business?’ And promotion questions begets more promotion questions. Similarly, prevention questions leads to more prevention questions. Founders who are typically asked prevention questions raise less capital than those who are asked promotion questions.”
I found that inextricably fascinating. I’ve never thought about investing through those lens before. It makes complete sense. The more an investor asks how are you not going to fail, the more they has convinced themselves this won’t be a good investment. On the flip side, the more an investor asks how awesome will you be, the more they’ve convinced themselves that this will be an investment worth their time.
And subsequently, I ended up reexamining the way I ask questions. I’ve never tracked the way I ask questions by demographic. But I fear that I may, in the past, have done something along the same veins.
When we closed out our conversation, she left me with one name: Dana Kanze. And well, if you know me, I had to look into her.
Lack of Venture Dollars
Dana Kanze is an assistant professor of organizational behavior over at London Business School. She wrote a paper titled We Ask Men to Win and Women Not to Lose: Closing the Gender Gap in Startup Funding back in 2018 that won her the Academy of Management Journal’s Best Article of the Year award, which she inevitably did a TED talk on that I highly recommend checking out.
She cites in that research that “although women found 38% of US companies, they only get 2% of the venture funding.” While that metric is a few years old, recent trends echo the same notion. Despite the increase in conversations to include diversity at the table, in board rooms and as decision makers, Crunchbase found in a study back in August that women still only get 2.2% of venture funding, which is actually lower than any of the previous five years.
Cynthia Franklin, director of entrepreneurship at Berkley’s Innovation Labs at NYU, did say, “The bets are being made, but they’re smaller.” Which accounts for the fact that 61% of total funding for female founders happens at the early stages. Frankly, it might be too early to tell. Nevertheless, Dana has a point.
Why female founders raise less capital
Originating from E. Tory Higgins’ regulatory focus, Dana shares the bifurcation of questions that male and female founders get. Promotion and prevention questions, respectively. “A promotion focus is concerned with gains and emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement needs, while a prevention focus is concern with losses and emphasizes safety, responsibility, and security needs.”
After analyzing nearly 2,000 questions and answers asked at TechCrunch Disrupt to presenting founders, she found that investors often ask male founders promotion questions. And investors ask female founders prevention questions. Specifically, 67% of questions to males were promotion questions. And 66% to females were prevention ones.
Yet I found one notion Dana shared particularly fascinating. “All VCs displayed the same implicit gender bias manifested in the regulatory focus of the questions they posed to male versus female candidates.” That both female and male investors had the exact same implicit cognitive biases against females.
Promotion questions beget promotion answers, which beget more promotion questions, reinforcing favorable opinions. It becomes a virtuous feedback loop, which culminates often times in a “yes”. On the other hand, prevention questions beget prevention answers. Which leads to more prevention questions. This, subsequently, leads founders down a negative feedback loop, reinforcing loss-correlated opinions. When it came down to it, “startups who were asked predominantly promotion questions went on to raise seven times as much funding as those asked prevention questions.”
The silver lining, as Dana shares, is that if founders respond to prevention questions with promotion answers, they raise 14 times more funding than those who answer prevention with prevention. The lesson is reframe your answers positively, betting on the long term potential and vision. Or in Alex Sok’s words, focus on a strategy to win rather than a strategy not to lose.
Investors invest in lines, not dots. And often times, VCs don’t realize they’re spending more time analyzing the y-intercept than the slope. And that mentality actualizes in the form of questions founders get.
As a founder, understand your investor intention — subconscious and conscious. Playing off of Matt Lerner’s language/market fit, find your fundraising language/investor fit. Once you understand their intention, capture their attention. In a saturated market of information, attention is your audience’s scarcest resource. Frame the dialogue with a promotion focus to get your investors over the activation energy to book the next meeting.
As an investor, pay attention to your cognitive biases. Most of the time, and often the most detrimental, are the ones we don’t realize. If anything, this blogpost is me pinching myself to wake up.
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Originally published at https://cupofzhou.com on November 24, 2021.