We're constantly led to believe that men and women are more equal than they've ever been, especially in the workplace. But the stark reality is that many female founders are facing a tricky professional situation filled with sexual advances and discrimination as I have come to find out for myself. Why shouldn't women be able to work with male investors without this unnecessary attention?
Even though there have been improvements in the funding that female founders receive, there's still a long way to go. Recent studies demonstrated that in 2015, of those founders seeking money, 29% were women, which was a 16% decrease on the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of male founders seeking funding increased by 14%.
Sometimes Female Founders Are Subject to the Wrong Type of Interest in Investor Meetings
Many women are brought up with the misconception that neither math nor finance is a natural career path. But the truth is, often times it is women who manage family budgets. Women have what it takes to control a balance sheet within a company, guiding a fledgling business to success. However, there's something else that's holding them back; financial backing from male investors.
Young female entrepreneurs often want to embrace their feminine sides as they take leadership roles but this often has negative connotations when it comes to investor meetings. Some male investors may feign interest in a business idea but things quickly turn sour as the male investor starts to make non-business related advances. Why? Because these female founders will do whatever it takes to get them on board, right? Wrong!
Every female entrepreneur that I have spoken to about this has an "investor horror story", myself included. But the issue here is that we are so afraid to talk to others about them or share these anecdotes because we are led to believe that somehow it is our fault when a male investor crosses the line. Well it is not!
One woman who anonymously shared her story with Forbes said that she resorted to wearing a gold band on her wedding finger to thwart sexual advances. She claims it might be awkward if anyone asks about her “spouse" but this awkwardness would be far less egregiousness than having to side step an uncomfortable proposition.
I, of course, thought it was a brilliant way to repel any interest so I took her advice and started wearing a "fake" engagement ring to some of these meetings. To my surprise, even that didn't stop some of the prospective investors to ask me out for a drink, or talk about unrelated matters to my business.
One thing's for sure, women shouldn't be made to feel like they are responsible for a way the investor is disrespecting them. They shouldn't be ashamed of standing up for their business and calling out the investors who dare to take advantage of the situation to propose other non-business matters. This isn't a game of power. We work just as hard (if not harder) as our male counterparts and we shouldn't be afraid to take a stand when we aren't taken seriously because some men can't see beyond the physical appearance. We can't forget that we are offering investors opportunities to be part of possibly the next big thing and by crossing the line, they're the ones at loss, not us! But with so many young women going through situations like this and with no one talking about it, they're often discouraged from pursuing their passions, which is a huge barrier in acquiring their capital raise.
Even though many believe that the number of female founders and angels will continue to rise (in the U.S., $14 trillion or 51% of personal wealth is controlled by women, and it is anticipated to rise to $22 trillion by 2020), this shouldn't mean that women have to rely on each other to get ahead and to avoid the seedy advances made by some male angels.
Attracting Male Investors in the Right Way
The economy needs female founders. It is our job as a society to eradicate the narrow-minded belief that women are open to romantic advances when they're trying to get their businesses off the ground. Women make great business leaders and with the right male angel, a formidable partnership could be established – but the foundations of this need to be built on respect. We shouldn't have to dress like men in order to be treated or perceived as visionaries or business savvy. An important step towards changing this narrative is communication and transparency. The truth is women are still not given the benefit of the doubt, across the investor table, for being brilliant business leaders and starting multi-billion-dollar companies. I wasn't aware of that until I stepped into this game and experienced it for myself. Unfortunately, in some male investors' eyes we are still just girls with a Powerpoint and a dream. I'm a big believer in inclusion and not solving an issue by avoiding it. We can't just stop seeking male investors all around, because there are some amazing angels I have met that have been extremely supportive and respectful. What we need is for leaders in this industry to call and lift up women as visionaries. And just as Jennifer Hyman would say, "if every "big" investor recognized one to five female founders and CEOs with a set of positive and promising adjectives, maybe we would be living in a completely different world."
What is the cause of this decline and how do females escape gender disparities?
Without respect, it's not just these exceptional female entrepreneurs who are losing out but investors too. There are many reputable investors out there, willing to invest the right time, money and respect into female founders. But with the negative image portrayed of male investors thanks to a handful of disrespectful ones, many may be reluctant to step forward to provide female founders with the backing they deserve.
It is our job to provide both female founders and male investors with the right support network, allowing for open communication and a deeper understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. This will help to eradicate one of the biggest stumbling blocks for women with ambition – men who have nothing more than a cheap grope in mind when they attend a female investor meeting.
I know many women have stories to share in regards to their experiences with prospective investors. I personally would love to open up a conversation around this and hearing about other women's take on this. Let's talk!
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."