During the research on startup culture for my master’s thesis, I interview many entrepreneurs. It takes some time to find a female entrepreneur. After talking to six male entrepreneurs, I for the first time sit down for coffee with a female entrepreneur. It doesn’t take a long time before she brings up the topic of gender.
We talk about the fact that there are not many women in the startup business. ‘There is a lot of press of women only getting 2% of the funding,’ she says, ‘And then they blame it on the VCs. But the truth is, there are just not many female founders, at least I have not met many.’ At that moment in my research I have only been to a few events and indeed have not seen many women. I ask her why she decided to come here. ‘I was born and raised to become an entrepreneur,’ she responds, ‘My dad raised me with the same criteria as my male siblings. With the same expectations.’ She explains there was a lot of pressure to become an entrepreneur, since there was not much of a choice not to become one in her family.
In another interview with a female founder, gender is a topic that arises early in the conversation. Again, it is not me who brings up the topic. ‘I lived in this area for a few years,’ she tells me, ‘and you hear about the lack of women, but going to an event is when you really see it.’ However, she meets a lot of women through women focused events. There is a women entrepreneur group that is very uplifting and motivating which she attends every few months. ‘We talk about how it feels to be a woman in the entrepreneur world. It can be difficult, demoralizing — the lack of women — so talking to other women entrepreneurs is motivating.’
When I ask her about female bias she says that she often hears ‘come back when you are a bit further along.’ She is wondering if this has anything to do with being a female and if a male in her position would already be funded. VCs seem to be searching for companies that are less risky. Often the bias is very subtle, but she does have some less subtle examples: when she was in a situation where after a pitch event she talked to a panel member and he said: ‘Honey, is that a company?’ In which she experiences both the word ‘honey’ and the fact that her company is not taken seriously as bias against her. Another example was when she attended another pitch event where she was asked to film all the pitchers. ‘They see me as a female, perhaps an assistant, rather than a founder.’
When someone addresses me with ‘sweetie’ and ‘dear’ during a business conversation, I pointed out that I did not want to be addressed like that. ‘That is just how I talk with women,’ was the response to that.
In the next interview with a female founder I ask about gender bias. There is negative and positive discrimination,’ she says. An example from positive discrimination is that it is easier for her to speak somewhere, they always want more women, because there are not enough. So PR wise, being a woman is nice. Negative discrimination is seen in what people think women are capable of. ‘You have to work harder for the same results. There are just more males in tech. As a woman you are an outsider and have to prove yourself. In a meeting, for example, women are more interrupted than men.’ She believes it goes back many years. The gender expectations are different for women and men. ‘It is new that women can do this.’ There are so many places where women are being told what they should do, and many women reinforce that. ‘It is expected of society [sic].’ She herself never felt it was not her job, she just felt that this was what she was interested in. ‘I know someone who was told: This is not for girls. You should not do things with computers. That really surprised me.’ Just as the first female entrepreneur I talked to, this one, was raised with expectations that were not based on her gender.
Another female entrepreneur shares biases she encountered. ‘I think the one thing that stands out the most is in angel meetings with older men: They ask if my company is going to be the next Theranos.’ That happened already 8 times now. ‘There is definitely gender bias there.’ She sees it with other female founders as well. Women have issues with their credibility, just because they are female.’
During a phone call wherein the topic was constantly business related: ‘You are actually quite bright,’ someone says to me after talking for an hour. I call him out on it, ask him about the expectations he had before the conversation. It sounds like he shrugs. ‘You looked mesmerizing. I just wanted to flirt a bit.’
At a later point in my research I meet one of the female interviewees again. During our coffee she opens up a bit more about the bias she experiences. ‘Everybody wants to date you,’ she says, when we talk about bias against women. ‘Investors take meetings with female entrepreneurs, just to play around. They like spending time with us. I can have a third or fourth meeting, which for men means they are getting close to the money, but for women does not mean anything.’ Another interviewee shares the same problem: ‘There is a tendency for investors to talk to you because they just want something to do. It is a waste of time.’ This is especially painful, since time for the entrepreneurs already feels incredibly limited. This power dynamic between entrepreneurs and investors is not only seen between female entrepreneurs and investors, also male entrepreneurs sometimes feel like they have to bend to whatever the investors find important. At the end of the line, they are the ones that can make the startup. The entrepreneurs are very dependent on raising capital, and thus on the investors.
A woman working at a tech startup as a recruiter says: ‘About tech… I have had candidates hit on me. That did not happen in my other careers.’ In her experience the gender roles in the tech sector are different than in other sectors she worked in.
A respondent/friend and I meet again. She is upset. After a few months she is still not close to investment. She thought she had it, but she did not. She tells me that the men make moves, that they only want to get in her pants, and not want to invest in her company. ‘I stopped working out, I don’t dress up nice anymore, I don’t put any makeup on.’ Still, she more often gets an invitation to go for dinner, than that she gets another meeting. She feels like they play with her, giving her a second, third and fourth meeting without the real intention to ever invest in her.