How do we Bridge the Gender Diversity Gap in the Startup Space?

By Jonathan Hammond, Global Marketing Director and Head of Unilever Foundry

Men tend to dominate the startup workforce, perhaps more so than in the biggest tech companies. New businesses need to improve levels of gender equality otherwise they face greater issues later down the line.

Numerous studies have shown that companies with more diverse workforces (startups included) perform better financially. The time to address the challenge and make some changes — is now.

Unilever Foundry is a global platform for startups and innovators to engage and collaborate with Unilever’s brands and functions. Earlier this year we released a piece called, “Scaling up Diversity,” containing research which surveyed 685 founders from around the world.

The majority of the women we spoke with said they have experienced unconscious bias at each stage of their startup’s lifecycle. This lifecycle included the time during their source funding — to discussions in the boardroom. 46 percent of people we spoke with acknowledged a concern about gender diversity issues.

This is not a new topic, and we aren’t the first to talk about the changes which need to be made to make a difference in the diversity gap habits of the business space. At Unilever Foundry we are determined to make a difference.

We have partnered with UN Women and its Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC). This unique alliance is working with 22 partners. GICC seeks to advance gender equality, create a set of innovation principles, and promote positive role models for women.

We have publicly shared our global commitment for half of all startups we partner with to be female-founded within the next five years.

Unilever Foundry has identified a series of steps to help address the gender gap that exists in the startup space:

● Acknowledge the issue. Both men and women desire change, and it is important to encourage and develop the conversation.

● Be transparent about gender equality by publishing pay gap statistics at an earlier stage.

● Revisit and re-define discrimination. Women remain wary of identifying their experiences of gender bias as discrimination, even when it impacts their ability to do their job.

● Provide accessible role models by establishing mentoring programs for women in startups.

● Create programs across disciplines and sectors to help women feel confident across all areas of a business, and in any sector.

● Create training programs for younger people, who typically experience gender bias to an even greater degree.

To understand where these steps can be implemented in the startup world, it’s important to understand the different stages where gender bias can be identified in the startup lifecycle.

Ideas Stage

Our research found that 61 percent of women in startups do not think there are enough female role models, which is extremely crucial at the ideas stage — before a start-up is even founded.

Men and women may begin their startup journey from different starting positions. Gender perceptions affect both men and women at a young age. Both men and women aren’t being encouraged to enter roles or industries that stereotypically are not associated with their gender. This has been a common tradition among genders and seems to be at the very root of this perception problem.


There are 42 percent of female founders who revealed that funding was one of the most challenging barriers when starting their companies as founders.

Delving deeper into the funding barrier, gender bias is the biggest discrimination factor, even above ethnicity and age. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of female founders report that investors have been less willing to invest in women.


We had 39 percent of female founders reveal that they frequently encountered sexism whilst running their startups. The main issues being marginalization in meetings (83 percent) and poor treatment when standing up for gender inequality (80 percent). 82 percent of women agree that to avoid looking uptight, they let inappropriate statements slide.

During in-depth interviews for this study show women who founded startups disclosed that they’re under more pressure than men to prove they can “do it all,” when balancing personal and professional lives.

Scaling up

Finding 42 percent of female founders believing that gender discrimination will stay the same as they scale up, is disheartening. Those who scale up feel they will remain a minority, and that a lack of role models remains an issue.

As gender bias continues to play a role, and present an issue across the startup ecosystem, we will be driving change with our new partnership with UN Women and our global commitment.

We can no longer allow this gender diversity gap to remain an issue that stunts the workforce growth in all arenas globally. The Unilever Foundry hopes that our drive to lesson inequality will encourage other industries and organizations worldwide to do the same.

We ask that other global frameworks join with us to make bold changes to tackle the gender diversity gap.

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at

The Unilever Foundry

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We are @Unilever’s global startup collaboration platform, partnering with the world’s best startups to accelerate business innovation globally.

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at

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