What You Talk About When You Talk About Women in Business…And Why It Sucks

We work with entrepreneurs from around the world who run fast-growth tech businesses. Most have come out of the best science and technology accelerators — Y Combinator, Techstars, StartX, Alchemist, IndieBio. We (only) work with clients whom we really like — about half are women entrepreneurs — and lately we’ve noticed that the larger conversation about women in business needs some diversification.

In our day jobs, we sometimes feel like our clients run circles around us. And when a middle-of-the-night email comes in, we don’t respond with questions about clients’ work-life balance.

But late at night, when reading ourselves to sleep with some entrepreneurship literature, we come across stories where women consistently get asked about how they manage to run a company while balancing their home lives. We scratch our heads (one balding) at the image of women who are relegated to mother-and-wife first and entrepreneur second.

We see a mismatch, because we’re a handful of dudes working for women that we darn near have a hard time keeping up with. I mean, if we asked our clients how they are going to raise the next financing round with all those dishes at home, we’d probably catch a fork in the eye.

While we’re not immune to the work-life questions in the privacy of our homes, we can’t imagine fielding that line of inquiry in public.

So we dug a little deeper to explore this issue further, and took some notes to see if we were missing a more interesting conversation.

Unfortunately, the disappointment continued.

For example,

  • Tory Burch’s November 2013 Economist piece, “Why the World Needs Women Entrepreneurs,” argues that because of women’s unique perspectives, they need access to capital, mentorship, and entrepreneurial education. We are on board with all of this.
  • What we are not on board with are Burch’s justifications for why women need these things: an easier balance of work and family, the fact that women reinvest 90% of their profits back into their communities and families, and inspiring other women to achieve their dreams. Although these may sound like good reasons, they reinforce the idea that solely women should be responsible for balancing their work and family and that once they do achieve that balance, they should use their profits to reinvigorate familial structures.
  • Finally, although it’s great to inspire others, it seems that only women are looked to as a source for this encouragement.

Though it’s inspirational for women to be outstanding in their fields, it shouldn’t be treated as an anomaly, but rather business as usual. At least, that’s what we see from the trenches.

Don’t get us wrong, women face barriers discouraging them from starting businesses and entrepreneurial interests, but part of the problem is pigeonholing women as wives and mothers while simultaneously burdening them to succeed so that they can be used to boost communities, which is coded language for “wholesome” and traditional family lifestyles. However, men aren’t regarded as husbands or fathers first, and we aren’t expected to use our capital in the same way.

Plenty of other writers and publications disappointed us when discussing women in business. Take “12 Female Entrepreneurs Reflect Upon What They Learned in 2015” from December 2015 on Entrepreneurship.com as an example:

  • Right off the bat, we kind of hate the adjective “female” in the title. The word literally means that one can reproduce young or lay eggs. Using this word not only reduces women to reproductive capabilities, but also it ignores the experiences of trans women who can’t have biological children. To remedy the title, may we boldly suggest instead: “Entrepreneurs Who We Assume Are Able to Bear Children Reflect Upon What They Learned in the Last Gestational Period Plus 3 Months.” [West Coast readers note the East Coast Sarcasm: We should stop referring to women with this kind of reductive rhetoric.]
  • We don’t agree with the suggestion that women’s success should be gender-neutral. Gender neutrality is a seductive idea that allows us to validate someone’s experience while denying the barriers in their existence. We’d instead acknowledge a woman’s perspective without designating her to the “woman corners” of society such as mother and caretaker. And don’t forget that when reading the word “woman,” society has painted in our minds of a cisgender, white, able-bodied, middle class, (presumably straight) person who has the ability (and desire, of course) to marry and get pregnant. What about women who don’t fit into those categories? Would you argue they also have the same experiences as men, in business or elsewhere? The answer is unarguably no.
  • No women of color included in the list, while the number of businesses owned by African-American women has increased 322% since 1997 as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the country. They deserve representation.
  • Only two of the twelve women profiled are in tech, which does not line up with what we see.

Contrary to the examples we have provided thus far, it is in fact possible to appreciate women’s unique business perspectives without perpetuating sexist stereotypes.

Some media are trying to do a better job. For example, Women in Technology International (WITI) posts evenhanded articles about women in business. One of their most recent articles, “What if Women Earned More Than Men”, offers advice about how to change the trend of the gender wage gap that goes beyond just believing in yourself. They offer advice on how to talk to your employer about equal pay and to create industry-specific women’s networking groups. They emphasize equality outside of the workplace as well.

In a similar WITI piece, “Come Back with Confidence”, the author writes that when coming back from a career break (which can occur for a number of reasons), women should find a mentor, choose projects strategically, and acknowledge their achievements. The article also offers advice for how to manage if returning from caring for children or loved ones, but does not assume this is the reason for all women. Throw in taking time off to travel the world, learn a random skill, or take a big chance, and that’s a conversation about women in business that we want to be a part of.

In addition to the solid advice articles, we also like profile or list pieces that celebrate successful women. Entrepreneur’s “2016 Women to Watch” does a great job using inclusive and empowering language. The introduction hails the women as “champions of entrepreneurship” and highlights their additional contributions to diversity and equality.

That’s what we like to see: women doing business as usual. Although there could still be more inclusivity regarding race, it’s a vast improvement from many profile articles. We are blessed enough to see profiles each day of women, dominating in business, who would neck-chop us if we congratulated them on their “miraculous” success despite “feminine” obstacles.

We want in on this conversation, because we have something to add from our work with women whose stories of success are being written each day.

For the next year, Suitless will be profiling women entrepreneurs. We will change how we talk about women. We will interview top minds and listen to what they’re doing.

This is a brand new endeavor for us and a qualitative study. And while we won’t execute this perfectly, we will focus on women’s brilliance instead of what they might or might not do in their bodies, relationships, or homes.

For Suitless, that’s business as usual.