Inside the Boys Club: Female Founders

I know it pretty well from my personal experience – whenever I go to a startup conference or any similar event I am sticking out like a sore thumb. I see young, motivated founders, VC’s and other partners – almost all of them are male and I can count the female founders on one hand.  Why is the startup world dominated by men? Should we care about it? And if yes, what could be done to improve that?

The First Female Founder Summit 2016 Picture: http://bit.ly/2gEtJy0

The First Female Founder Summit 2016
Picture: Female Founder Summit, http://bit.ly/2gEtJy0

A men’s world

It is well known that gender diverse teams are more productive than teams that are composed of people of the same gender. It is also well known that there are glass ceilings that make it much more difficult for women to pursue their careers than for men. If you look at the statistics, the high tech startup sector couldn’t care less about these issues: In high-growth technology startups that are venture capital financed, women make up for only 9% of the entrepreneurs. A study of Bloomberg analyzed over 2000 startups in the field of technology based in the US from 2009 to 2015 that were able to raise at least 20 millions of venture capital: Among the analyzed founders were only 7 per cent women. And of course there are reasons for that: The proportion of women in STEM fields is generally low – but still not as low as the 9% – in computer science and math-related subjects in the US, 27 % of the workforce is female.

Simply sexism?

So why is it that especially in the field of high tech, which is one of the most promising in terms of rewards for entrepreneurs, the gender gap is as big as it is? Is it simply sexism, men promoting men in a men’s world where female founders are not given a chance? The problem can for sure not be reduced to factors like these. However, there is a lot of sexism, as Mathilde Collin, CEO of Frontapp, a collaborative email app, states: “When you’re a woman in charge, you do have to work a bit more to get credibility and have people listen to you; it might be harder to recruit developers and make them trust you; and you will end up going to a few sales meetings where the other person is more interested in you than in your product.” This can put women off that field and again lower the percentage of women – a vicious cycle.

Positive aspects

However, the positive side of being a female founder in a men’s world is that it is usually much easier to get press coverage, even if sometimes female founders are then again reduced to the fact that they’re female. Still, it might be easy to remember your pitch if you are the only female founder among 15 other founders.  Another advantage is definitely that many of the female founders that have achieved great success with their startups are tired of being the few ones among huge amounts of male founders and therefore take action: They support female founders in particular – they launch their own ventures, foundations, accelerators that are aimed at bringing more women into the startup world. One example of these initiatives WomenWay, a women’s business network in Switzerland consisting of female entrepreneurs, executives and board members. Their primary goals are to bring female founders and investors together to serve as an important business network as well as to support female role models and success stories in order to motivate the founders. In November this year, WomenWay held its first Female Founder Summit in Zurich, where female founders were pitching in front of investors, VC’s, corporates sponsors and media representatives. The women attending the event were enthusiastic about it: “It’s inspiring and empowering, it creates a lot of positive energy for likeminded people”.

Perception change

A step in the right direction: Bringing female founders together with venture capitalists is above all an important factor since it has been proven that female founders don’t get as much funding as their male counterparts. Research has shown that the gender gap disappears when the venture capitalists are females themselves –  whether this is down to the fact that female VC’s are better at evaluating female led startups than male VC’s is still arguable. And the venture capitalists are beginning to realize how important gender diversity can be. As Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University puts it: ” Things are changing for the better. There is outrage at the sexism that is coming to light in Silicon Valley; solutions are being discussed and implemented; women are beginning to help each other; and the venture-capital system is looking at itself critically and mending its ways.”

To sum up, being a female entrepreneur in a male dominated field is exactly about standing out of the crowd and taking advantage of it – even if then women sometimes have to act according to sexist mechanisms like the one mentioned above. They can either deal with the current situation and make the best of it or not be a part of it and go for something else. Right now, this perception of “deal with it like everyone else does, being in a startup is tough no matter what gender you are” is still predominant. Nevertheless, it seems like this is slowly changing towards the opinion that women should be specifically targeted and supported in the high tech startup field.