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Stop Asking if America is “Ready” for a Woman President

4min read
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It's the question on everyone's tongues. It's what motivates every conversation about whether or not Liz Warren is "electable," every bit of hand-wringing that a woman just "can't win this year," and every joke about menstrual cycles and nuclear missiles. Is America ready for a woman president?


It's a question that would be laughable if it wasn't indicative of deeper problems and wielded like a weapon against our ambitions. Whether thinly-veiled misogyny or not (I'm not going to issue a blanket condemnation of everybody who's ever asked), it certainly has the same effect: to tell us "someday, but not yet." It's cold comfort when "someday" never seems to come.

What are the arguments? That a woman can't win? That the country would reject her authority? That the troops would refuse to take her orders? That congress would neuter the office? Just the other day, The New York Times ran yet another in a long series of op-eds from every major newspaper in America addressing this question. However, this one made a fascinating point, referencing yet another article on the topic in The Atlantic (examining the question during Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential bid), which cited a study by two Yale researchers who found that people were either the same or more likely to vote for a fictional male senator when told that he was ambitious; and yet, both men and women alike were less likely to vote for a woman when told that she was ambitious, even reacting with "feelings of moral outrage" including "contempt, anger, and disgust."

The question isn't whether a woman could be president, or whether a woman can be elected president – let's not forget that Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than the wildly unqualified man currently sitting in the oval office – it's whether or not it's appropriate for a woman to run for president, in a pre-conscious, visceral, gut-check way. In short, it's about misogyny. Not your neighbors' misogyny, that oft-cited imaginary scapegoat, but yours. Ours. Mine. The misogyny we've got embedded deeply in our brains from living in a society that doesn't value women, the overcoming of which is key for our own growth, well-being, and emotional health.

Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?

That misogyny, too, is reinforced by every question asking people to validate a woman even seeking the position. Upfront, eo ipso, before considering anything of their merit or experience or thought, whether a woman should be president, that, if given the choice between a qualified woman and an unqualified man, the man wins (which, let's not forget, is what happened four years ago). To ask the question at all is to recognize the legitimacy of the difference in opinion, that this is a question about which reasonable people might disagree. In reality, it's a question that reason doesn't factor into at all. It's an emotional question provoking an emotional response: to whom belong the levers of power? It's also one we seem eager to dodge.

"Sure, I'd vote for a woman, but I don't think my neighbor would. I'd vote for a woman, but will South Carolina? Or Nebraska? Or the Dakotas?" At worst, it's a way to sort through the cognitive dissonance the question provokes in us – it's an obviously remarkable idea, seeing as we've never had a woman president – and at best, it's sincere surrender to our lesser angels, allowing misogyny to win by default. It starts with the assumption that a woman can't be president, and therefore we shouldn't nominate one, because she can't win. It's a utilitarian argument for excluding half of the country's population from eligibility for its highest office not even by virtue of some essential deficiency, but in submission to the will of a presumed minority of voters before a single vote has ever been cast. I don't know what else to call that but misogyny by other means.

We can, and must, do better than that. We can't call a woman's viability into question solely because she's a woman. To do so isn't to "think strategically," but to give ground before the race even starts. It's to hobble a candidate. It's to make sure voters see her, first and foremost, as a gendered object instead of a potential leader. I have immense respect for the refusal of women like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and pioneers like Carol Mosley-Braun, going as far back as Victoria Woodhull, to accede to this narrative and stick to their arguments over the course of their respective campaigns, regardless of any policy differences with them. It's by women standing up and forcing the world to see us as people that we push through, not by letting them tell us where they think we belong.

One of the themes I come back to over and over again in my writing is women asserting independence from control and dignity in our lives. It's the dominant note in feminist writing going back decades, that plea for recognition not only of our political and civil rights, but our existence as moral agents as capable as any man in the same position, as deserving of respect, as deserving of being heard and taking our shot. What then do we make of the question "is America ready for a woman president?" Is America ready? Perhaps not. But perhaps "ready" isn't something that exists. Perhaps, in the truest fashion of human politics, it's impossible until it, suddenly, isn't, and thereafter seems inevitable.

I think, for example, of the powerful witness Barack Obama brought to the office of president, not simply by occupying it but by trying to be a voice speaking to America's cruel and racist history and its ongoing effects. By extension, then, I think there is very real, radical benefit to electing a chief executive who has herself been subject to patriarchal control in the way only women (and those who others identify as women) can experience.

I look at reproductive rights like abortion and birth control, and that is what I see: patriarchal control over bodies, something no single president has ever experienced. I think about wage equality; no US president has ever been penalized for their sex in their ability to provide for themselves and their families. I look at climate change, and I remember that wealth and power are inextricably bound to privilege, and that the rapacious hunger to extract value from the earth maps onto the exploitation women have been subject to for millennia.

That's the challenge of our day. We've watched, over the last decade, the radicalized right go from the fringes of ridicule to the halls of power. We've watched them spit at the truth and invent their own reality. All while some of our best leaders were told to wait their turn. Why, then, all this question of whether we're ready for something far simpler?

Why didn't we ever ask if America was ready for Trump?

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Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap

Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.


Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.


This piece was originally published in 2018.