I Wish I Didn’t Have to Explain What It’s Like to Be a Woman in Tech
I’d like to stop writing articles about what it means to be a woman in tech and to never again feel it necessary to field yet another question like “Is it harder being a woman business owner?”
But because many disparities remain unresolved, I still find myself at events geared toward women in tech and business. Last Thursday, at the Angel Venture Fair Women’s Funding Seminar, I joined three other business owners, all women, who have raised capital from private investors. We came together with a common purpose: to share our successes and failures, our stories, so that our individual and collective experiences might help others more deftly navigate what is, so far, a disappointingly rigged game. We spoke before an almost all-women audience. As we passed the mic, we recounted networking strategies and recommended key connectors in the local ecosystem. We described how to strategize around cap tables.
But interestingly, as we spoke, none of our words directly touched on “being a woman.” I intentionally approach these panels this way whenever possible. I focus on the gender-neutral mechanics of the adventure. Why? Because I have nothing to compare to my experience as a woman. I am a woman. I’ve never built a business as a man. I wouldn’t and can’t know what the difference is. It’s an impossibility. However, if I were a man, perhaps some of these experiences would have never occurred:
- Sitting blank-faced in an apartment lobby with someone I thought was a potential investor, listening to him “advise” me with things like: “Your style of dress is good,” “Continue dressing in this manner,” and “Avoid looking like a Hooter’s waitress.”
- Figuring out how to respond to a male startup community leader I barely knew when he asked me three times over six months, “What does your boyfriend do for a living?” And the one time when I did answer his question, he snickered and said he expected me to “be with someone better.”
- At one of my first investor events, I was excited to meet potential investors, so I went over and introduced myself to one of the organizers. He said, “Oh you must be the marketing girl!”
- Or when someone with whom I actually have a strong working relationship said, while introducing me to a new investor, “She’s an attractive entrepreneur in all the right ways,” with a sleazy emphasis on the word “all.” The clear inference? My looks and gender were on the menu for review as much as anything else.
- This year at a pitch event, a prominent angel investor offered to introduce me to someone and then said, “And you don’t even have to do anything for me!” And when I made a shocked face, he said “You know me, I’m just a dirty old man …”
I have never publicly talked about these moments and have never confronted the people involved until now. I had been too fearful of the possible consequences to my reputation, worried that I’d be seen as a troublemaker or even blacklisted from future opportunities. But after this week of Weinstein testimonies and our own turmoil around diversity in Philly’s startup community, I can no longer remain silent. I’ve decided to give voice to my experiences to stand with the brave women who have already spoken out. We give strength to each other; we are stronger together.
As someone who got her post-college start as an employee at Planned Parenthood (and after being a women’s studies major), women’s rights and equal justice have always been, and always will be, a core value. My perspective has at times caused me consternation, even soul-searching and confusion. But as I mentioned at the beginning of the piece, it would be ideal to not have to answer questions like “How is it being a woman in tech?”
If and when these questions are no longer asked of my fellow women owners and me, then perhaps it will be because the great disparity has finally been closed. But that’s not the reality.
Last year, venture capitalists invested $58.2 billion in companies with male leaders, while women-led companies received a sliver of the pie — just $1.46 billion. These numbers hurt even more when you know that women own 38 percent of businesses in the U.S. but only get about 2 percent of all venture money.
And while this actual percentage of overall investments improved for women founders, the amount of capital actually shrank. According to Fortune, in 2016 “women got just 2.19 percent of venture capital funding — a smaller piece of the pie than in every year this past decade, with the exception of 2008 and 2012.”
These statistics are shocking if you’ve never heard or seen them before, or if you’ve never tried to raise money as a woman. And a lot of research has made it painfully clear that gender bias is a major factor. There’s an actual academic paper titled “Investors Prefer Entrepreneurial Ventures Pitched by Attractive Men.” And there are many others. In fact, Philly Mag published a story covering research on gender bias in the VC world from Wharton professor Laura Huang. The research shows that venture capitalists actually ask male entrepreneurs questions that set them up to show off, while the questions they typically ask women are probing for flaws.
Unfortunately, too often, my experience strongly lines up with the data. I have given many pitches over the last four years. I’ve grown all too aware of the difference between the type of questions often asked of the men and those asked of the women competing for those investor dollars. VCs are much more likely to ask me questions from a place of prevention and pessimism, and much less likely to come from a place of promotion and optimism.
Luckily for me and the people who have invested in MilkCrate, I am a diehard optimist, and I know that optimism and luck are not the same things. Optimism is about believing good things are possible, with work. And besides, research shows, that whether it’s large corporations or startups, women-led and diverse teams have stronger returns. First Round Capital, for example, calculated that their investments with female founders performed 63 percent better than their investments with all-male founding teams.
Here are just a few thoughts on what we can do here in Philadelphia and beyond to close the funding gap between men- and women-led ventures:
- More male investors need to challenge how they’ve been doing things and make a change. Example? John Martinson, founder of Edison Ventures and longtime regional investor, is increasingly investing in female tech CEOs on purpose. More male investors should take a page out of John’s book.
- More women with wealth need to recognize their power to drive innovation by investing in women-founded companies. They should contact Ellen Weber at Robin Hood Ventures or other local angel groups.
- Men need to be willing to be more proactive in calling out sexist, discriminatory, and even predatory behavior among their colleagues.
- Find ways to encourage a little thought exercise where men are asked repeatedly: What is it like to be a male entrepreneur? What is it like to be a male investor? How has your gender influenced your experiences? Perhaps a little more self-awareness will help shift the unchecked biases and decisions.
- Pay attention to and act on the extra layers of marginalization and discrimination that women of color and other marginalized groups face when raising capital. The fight for a more equitable system for all is a fight that must be fought in unison and from many directions. We all have privilege and power to help lift each other up if we choose.
- Lastly, a group of local entrepreneurs is building a list of women in the region’s startup ecosystem. The list will be a resource that organizations can use to find women who can serve as speakers and panelists at events. It can even be used as a source for talent. We plan to make this resource public soon.
Actions like these, and events like last week’s AVF Women’s Funding Seminar, have the opportunity to build and create change. I was privileged to share the microphone with a group of impressive founders. We came to talk about fundraising. We also happen to be women. We all look forward to and are working toward the time when no one thinks to ask us what it’s like to be a woman in business because gender won’t indicate an extra hurdle, investor gender bias will be vanquished, and we will all have an equal shot at and access to respect, capital, and building a lasting impact. Until then? Pass the mic. #MeToo.
Morgan Berman is the CEO of MilkCrate, a mission-driven B-Corp certified company that offers an award-winning platform that measures and grows impact for large groups — from big corporations wanting to engage employees in sustainability to tiny nonprofits building access and education for kids to eat more healthfully. MilkCrate makes behavior change and impact growth easy with customized gamified apps for your goals. Learn more at www.mymilkcrate.com.
Follow @morganberman on Twitter.