You need not watch HBO’s Silicon Valley to get a sense for how predominantly male and white the Silicon Valley venture capital and startup scene is. Just Google “VC firms” and take a look at their team pages. Every person on Forbes’ Top 10 Venture Investors for 2014 fits the white male mold.
Leaving aside this skewed balance, and considering just unconscious bias (watch this if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it’s reasonable to assume that women are treated differently than their male counterparts when pitching to VCs, whether or not those VCs are men. The Valley has been under lots of scrutiny over the last few years for what seems to be a system biased towards men, and lots of people and companies are working to expose these issues and help women get equal treatment and pay. Some investors have jumped on the band wagon as well.
So it was no surprise to me this November when 500 Women, a branch of 500 Startups (one of the VCs that actually seems to have cared about women before it became a thing), put on an event with “lightning talks by dynamic women in tech.” They had a great lineup of women and I enjoyed every single talk. I know some women were especially excited to see that one of the speakers was Christine Herron, Director at Intel Capital. It felt like a unique opportunity to get advice from a female VC.
And Christine delivered a great talk. It was very engaging and she provided fantastic examples of the excuses VCs will say when they decline to invest and what they actually mean. She shared helpful insights about how women and men often pitch differently and how women should do a better job of pumping themselves up and showing pride in their achievements. Her talk was inspiring, funny and truthful. None of it was particularly controversial and it all seemed like solid and sound advice.
During the Q&A, though, a question led to a surprising bit of advice regarding the appearance of women during a startup pitch. Christine advised that any woman who wanted to be taken seriously by an investor, should put her hair up. I was immediately intrigued. I also felt it was messed up that how a woman wears her hair is even part of the equation. This feeling of injustice was immediately followed by an internal admission that almost every job interview I’ve had has been accompanied by an internal debate on whether to wear my long, curly hair down or up. My unfiltered unconscious knew the importance of appearances even if my conscious believed it to be unfair and demeaning.
Others also seemed especially intrigued by Christine’s statement and some later expressed concern over a woman’s hair factoring into the decision. Christine didn’t back down, though, and even clarified that women of a certain age (I presume older) could get away with having their hair down and when an Asian woman rose her hand, she mentioned that Asian women should follow a whole different set of rules.
Some people seemed shocked. I was surprised, but impressed that she was so straightforward. There was a lot of great information I took away from the talks, but the hair comment is what really stuck with me. Over the past few months I have become completely fascinated by the subject of appearance and unconscious biases of all kinds.
Christine made a great point later in the Q&A, that appearances, whether you are male or female, weigh into how people perceive you. Whether women or men have it worse in this regard is something worth investigating, but I left the talk firstly wanting to find out if a woman’s hair style really could be a factor into whether she’ll receive funding from an investor or not.
To do this, I set up a Google Consumer Survey and I formulated a few loose experiments. I had lots of ideas on how to go about this with complex ways of getting at the answers I was looking for, but I decided to keep the experiments simple and focused.
In this post I will only focus on the results of the first two surveys I ran and I will cover the others in subsequent posts. For these initial two, I simply did one survey that included a photo of myself with my hair up and one with my hair down and both asked the same question: “Do you think this woman would make a good CEO?” I worked with a friend who is a photographer to try and get a photo that had as few differences as possible other than my hair being up or down.
Ponytails Win By a Very Fine Hair, but Only 50% Would Vote for Me on Shark Tank
So based on this very loose experiment, it appears that my hair up was the winner by just a few percentage points. 54% of people who took the survey where my hair was up thought I would make a good CEO, while 51% of the people who took the survey where my hair was down thought that I would make a good CEO.
This result is interesting. It shows not only that there are negligible differences when my hair was up vs down, but also only 50% thought I’d make a good CEO. Now one might say these folks are simply just answering with no regard to the question because they can’t possibly know based just on a photo. So, a follow up survey with a man may be something worth investigating. Would people be more willing to say a man would make a good CEO purely off of a photo? My hairstyle may not have much impact, but I’m guessing my gender does. More to come on this in future posts.
Women vs. Men in the Hair Equation
Things also get interesting when you compare the answers based on the demographics (gender, age, and location) of the respondents. I should note, though, that all of the following analysis is based on slicing data, which results in not enough data to be statistically significant. So while the following explorations are interesting and may point toward possible trends it all requires further investigation.
When I compared the answers of women vs men, it appears that my hair made slightly less of a difference to men than it did to women, who were more likely to say I would make a good CEO when my hair was up. Both men and women alike thought I’d make a good CEO, regardless of my hairstyle, around 50% of the time.
Age May Matter
So what about the age of the respondents? These results showed more discrepancy. The most notable results were that people between the ages of 25 and 34 more often felt that I would make a good CEO when my hair was up (62% vs. 47% for down), while people over 65 more often thought that I would make a good CEO with my hair down (67% vs. 45% for up). Overall, younger people (ages 18–24) were more likely to think I would make a good CEO (hair up or down) and middle-aged people (ages 45–54) were less likely to think I would make good CEO (hair up or down).
Pack Up And Head West, Ladies
For my final bit of analysis, I sliced the data based on location of the respondents. And yep, you guessed it, people in the West were more likely in general to think I would make a good CEO regardless of my hair style. People in the Northeast were slightly more likely to think I made a good CEO with my hair up then with my hair down (58% of the time/vs 50% with my hair down).
In Conclusion: Don’t Stress Your Tresses
The data is pretty split and after rerunning one of the surveys and getting similar results, my feeling is that hairstyle may matter, in the same way your general appearance matters, but there is probably no definitive style (up or down) that will win investors over.
These are loose experiments, though, and Christine has years of experience in this matter. I’d wager that her intuition is strong, but that hair up or down may be just one component in the overall assessment of appearance, which unfortunately does weigh into the decision as many other studies show. In addition, these surveys were targeted at a general web-surfing audience, rather than specifically investors or people that have attributes similar to most investors (wealthy, well-educated, white etc). Christine may be right that investors or investor-types may indeed have more faith in the management ability of women with their hair up. I hope to drill in a bit further on this and either survey a specific target group or have enough data to get at that group via a slice.
So these survey results, while not conclusive, did help me discover areas that need further exploration like what the results would look like for a man, or how things might change if I crop out my chest and only use a headshot. There are also things that could have factored into the results, like the fact that my smile appears more genuine with my hair down, etc.
Investigating the hair up vs. hair down question is just the start for me. I will follow up with more surveys that explore the difference in how we perceive people based on gender, age, race and other attributes. While I’d love to live in a world where who you are on the inside is what lands you jobs or a million dollars, until that world exists I hope to shed a bit of light on the realities we all have to face no matter what face (or hairstyle) we have.
- Deemanator (@deemanator)
P.S. I leave you with this:
Photos for surveys by Megan Wilkinson: http://www.meganwilkinsonphotography.com/
Vintage Barbies — assorted Swirl Ponytail Barbies by Romiagirl67: https://www.flickr.com/photos/romitagirl67
Death to Ponytails by Philip Chapman-Bell: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oschene/