Why such a softly-softly approach to female entrepreneurship?

At an entrepreneurship event called ‘Startup Girls’ organised by Kstart, a seed programme created by early-stage investors Kalaari Capital, there is a lot of tittering about how much women love to talk. Several speakers — female speakers, people who manage funds, have founded companies — jokingly refer to how it’s tough to stop women talking once they have started, how they should stop chatting in the tea room already and get back to their seats so they can hear other women on stage who are also, obviously, going to talk up a storm.

Wait, I thought, surely the whole objective of this exercise is to talk? Not talk at women (and the handful of men in the room) but talk to them? The event schedule even has times set aside for activities such as ‘networking’ and ‘meeting and mingling’. Then why these throwaway references to women talking too much?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t men talk at these kind of events? Why have I never heard people cracking jokes about how much men love to talk? It was disconcerting to encounter such obvious stereotyping — even in jest — at an event organised to inspire and motivate female entrepreneurs. It was a misplaced attempt at levity that actually reveals something much more problematic — that female entrepreneurs are still not taken as seriously as their male counterparts.

There, I have said it.

To be sure, the event was well-intentioned. The organisers had put together an impressive list of speakers — among them Debjani Ghosh, MD of Intel South Asia; Facebook India MD Keerthiga Reddy; Varsha Rao, head of India operations at AirBnB; Vani Kola, MD, Kalaari Capital; Myntra founder Mukesh Bansal and veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta. But instead of hearing these super achievers talk about specific experiences from their lives that had taught them valuable lessons in their entrepreneurial journeys — solid, valuable and hard-hitting lessons that they could now pass on to a new generation of entrepreneurs — I heard the same, old, tired story of how much women have to struggle to start up, how they are often not taken seriously, how much they have to juggle between their careers and marriage and children, how important it was to “balance” everything, how women needed “strong mentors”, how they needed to build a sisterhood yada yada yada.

This is a recurring pattern in every discussion or event I have attended over the past several years that involves women and business. It is always more ‘women’ and less ‘business’.

At the Startup Girls event, there is even a session with three female entrepreneurs during which they have to talk about their work through the four lenses of ‘money’, ‘people’, ‘validation’ and ‘guilt’. Seriously, guilt? What for? For being smart and ambitious? Why do we even need to talk about this? Why give validation to an emotion that has for too long restricted women from really giving their careers their best shots?

I’m pretty sure that when a bunch of young male entrepreneurs meet a bunch of older and more experienced founders (or if it’s an event that’s not deliberately gendered, as this was) they don’t sit down and talk about guilt. Or validation. They talk about hard-hitting stuff — how did you first make money, tell us how you raised funding, tell us how you push your ideas through, tell us what mistakes you made so we don’t make them. I bet they don’t sit around and talk chummily about how they feel guilty about not being great dads. There is a time and place for that, and a startup event is probably not that place.

So why is it that when we talk to and about female businesswomen, all these questions about marriage and children and security and personal problems come up again and again?

I loved how Debjani Ghosh said she was naturally assertive because her parents had always told her she was better than her brothers and male cousins, but the very title of the session on ‘assertive leadership’ made me see red. Isn’t it a given that if you want to start a company and be a leader, you bloody well have to be assertive? Why is it that only when we talk of women in business, we start getting all apologetic about being assertive and need to explain why it is essential to be so? Why can’t we, for once, stop looking at the whole gender thing whenever we have a roomful of women, stop talking about how tough it is to be women and businesswomen at the same time, and just talk about how tough it is to do business, period?

I bet most of the attending female entrepreneurs didn’t come to hear about how women need to stop giving credit to other people for their achievements, or how they should accept praise when it is due, or how they are often not taken seriously for ‘looking too young’ (yes, that came up). Some of them have probably learnt how to deal with that sort of thing already. They needed to hear solid business gyaan — not how to overcome your inhibitions and dream big and push on and all that Paulo Coelho sort of thing.

It was all very disappointing, to say the least. I guess I should have realised what the tone of the event would be like from its title — Startup Girls.

We are not girls. Please don’t infantilize us.

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