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Rekindle Your Place: How Women Can Overcome Gender Bias

Neeta Murthy
Latino businesswoman in black jacket stands over a table looking to her right and smiling.

Early-stage founders are often advised to jump in and do things themselves, first, before they can hire a team to take over. For example, they may be told, “No one understands your users and your product as well as you do, so you should do the sales yourself in the beginning.” Only after the founder learns what works for their business are they advised to bring others on board.

In contrast, women founders are often given the opposite advice. They may be counseled to build a team in sales, product development, and operations right from the start. For example, they may be told, “You don’t have a sales background, so you’ll need to get someone who can sell for you.” While these friends and advisors may mean well, this stark difference in advice comes from a gender bias that still persists across all industries.

The Prevalence of Gender Bias Encountered by Today’s Female Founders

It’s difficult for most people to picture a woman writing code, selling to clients, or making the day-to-day decisions needed to keep business operations from breaking. Due to the stereotypes that women typically don’t have these skills, women founders can get very different advice compared to their male peers.

I experienced this when I first presented a valuation analysis of my company. To give you some background on myself, I have been in multiple P&L roles for a large oilfield services company, have an MBA from Harvard Business School, and have worked on Wall Street.

I have a thorough understanding of valuations and also cross-checked my analysis with my VC friends to be sure. The investor I was presenting to knew of my entire background, but after I took him through the numbers, he asked one question: “Who made this valuation analysis?”

“I did,” I said, a little confused.

He smiled immediately, paused for a few seconds, and then said, “Why don’t you get your husband to make it?”

At that time, I honestly didn’t understand what was going on. What did my husband have to do with this? Was he a co-founder? No. Did he work in investing? No. Why had all this even started? Had I done something wrong?

I took a few seconds to gather my thoughts and said something to deflect this diversion and move on. But it was my very first formal presentation, and I knew then that the road ahead would be much harder than what it would’ve been for a male founder.

Strategies to Help Female Founders Recognize and Counteract Gender Bias

Gender bias exists everywhere. Sometimes, it shows up explicitly, like in my case above, but often, it’s a deep, invisible current running through all the judgments and perceptions people carry of women.

Women founders still only receive 2 percent of all VC funding because most people think of women’s businesses as a side passion project—something they’re doing to keep themselves occupied when they’re not fussing over their kids. Or worse, they see a female founder’s company as something she does so people don’t think she is unemployed.

Entrepreneurship is challenging, but at least men are celebrated for taking the risk and trying out something cool. For women, the path feels much lonelier.

So, what can women do to overcome these biases? Here are some strategies to use:

Pause and Take Stock

Anytime you experience an incident that makes you question your ability, pause and study it. Don’t internalize the feeling of, “I have no idea what I’m doing” or, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this” without taking the time to understand the situation first.

Take a moment to ask yourself why you are receiving the feedback and whether or not it will help your business grow. Sometimes, it can be very valid input, so taking a step back and thinking about it calmly can help you keep an open mind.

Call Out the Bias to Yourself

If, after step one, you objectively recognize there is bias involved, call it out to yourself: “He would never tell a man to ask his wife to make the valuation.” Articulating this clearly in your mind is critical.

If you fail to recognize bias for what it is, you can let self-doubt take hold and be left with lingering feelings of inadequacy. Be clear in your mind that it had nothing to do with your competency.

Approach Gender Bias Constructively

When you experience bias, try not to let it agitate you—not for the sake of others, but for yourself. Entrepreneurship can be stressful enough, so don’t add to that stress by getting upset about how unfair things are. Use the energy to fuel you up even more so you can keep forging ahead!

Be Kind to Yourself and Persist

The truth is that women will always face more than their fair share of bias. Most people don’t mean harm but are still a product of societal conditioning. Rather than trying to “overcome” bias, look for ways to “navigate” it so you can still achieve your goals. For example, if you find it hard to raise funds as a woman, look for VCs that specifically commit to investing in women.

Sure, sometimes it can be unclear if it’s bias or if you goofed up as you tried something new. The latter will happen a lot—or at least it should happen a lot if you’re trying to grow yourself and your business. Either way, be kind to yourself, brush off the negativity, know that most often, people mean well even if it doesn’t come across that way, and keep at it.

Gender bias is undoubtedly pervasive in our society. Being a founder is hard enough, but being a female founder who has to face these subtle and not-so-subtle biases every day can be exhausting. Don’t let it drag you down or prevent you from achieving your dreams. Recognize it when it happens, rather than internalizing it as a personal shortcoming, and call it out to yourself so you can label the incident correctly in your memory for the future. Finally, navigate through the bias to find success.

Persisting and succeeding are the best ways to challenge bias and make things a little better for future generations.

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