The real reason for the Silicon Valley gender bias cycle, and how to break it
In 2017, I attended a VC event (GlobalCapitalSummit )on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. As a Berlin-based entrepreneur, I remember being so excited to get my chance to pitch real Bay Area VCs. Approaching the registration table at Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, I was told that “[my] kind of services are not welcome here”.
As it turns out, a Russian-immigrant, female entrepreneur at a VC event was such a far-fetched idea that the hotel employee assumed I was a sex worker targeting wealthy VCs — not a founder looking for funding.
As a 2x founder and the CEO of BUNCH — a venture-backed startup building an AI leadership coach — my experience has taught me the different ways in which the game is rigged against marginalized people (including women).
What’s really going on: the subtle workings of implicit gender bias
While it’s exciting to see Whitney Wolfe Herd take Bumble public this month, ringing the opening bell (virtually) for the NASDAQ with her son on her hip, the reality is that only 20% of startups have a female founder or co-founder.
Those companies receive only 2.2% of all venture capital funding, so not only are women 80% less likely to be in a position to pitch VCs, but those who are will receive approximately one-tenth as much funding on average as a male-led startup.
One part of the problem is the so-called implicit gender bias, which Dana Kanze (a former founder turned researcher at Columbia) explains in her TED talk as the investors’ focus on risks when evaluating female founders rather than opportunities (typical reaction when evaluating male founders), reducing the overall readiness to invest in the female founded businesses. When you consider that VC rejection rates across the board are 90% or higher, it paints a picture of just how much Whitney is the exception to the rule.
As a trained psychologist, I know that there’s usually no malice behind gender bias. Investors, team members, and even customers are simply “pattern-matching”. The well-known, successful startup founders and CEOs that you can name right away are mostly white men. When there’s a narrative violation — like having a female CEO — people tend to be more critical without even realizing it.
During our first round of fundraising for BUNCH, I remember my co-founder Charles pointing out that VCs tended to focus on the risks of our business case when we pitched to them. “We’re supposed to be talking about an incredible opportunity in the market”, he said, “but instead we’re spending 95% of the time examining every little thing that could possibly go wrong”.
Imagine going on a date, but spending 95% of the conversation talking about everything that’s ever gone wrong in your life, or might go wrong in the future. There’s probably not going to be a second date, and it’s the same with VCs. But how do you stop ending up on lousy first dates?
Breaking the cycle: normalizing women in positions previously only held by men
How can we make moments like Whitney Wolfe Herd’s feel less like a momentous event, and more like just another business success story?
For starters, we need to showcase the successes of people who don’t fit the mold, and make sure marginalized people in powerful positions are more visible. That sounds daunting, but it starts with empowering women on a day-to-day basis.
Here are a few tactics for how to do just that:
Commit to hiring targets
There’s a saying in business: “what gets measured, gets managed”. I used to think that having quotas or explicit targets for diversity was wrong, because it felt centered on differences vs. what unites us.
But as soon as there’s an explicit, committed goal, change happens. That’s why at BUNCH we’re actively prioritizing female and BIPOC candidates, especially in more senior roles.
We’re nowhere near our goal yet (our team, like many in tech, still leans white and male), but it’s already forced us to make some tough hiring decisions. We’ve also already seen an increase in the diversity of our hiring pipeline.
Make space, intentionally
The little things matter. My experience tells me that women tend to get interrupted more in meetings. They’re also less likely to speak up when they have an idea.
So it pays to be intentional about how to counteract those issues — and often there are simple tactical habits or rituals that can help.
For example, you can try a “round robin” approach to meetings, where you ask everyone present to give their input, with a no-interruptions rule. You can make a point of asking someone what they think if they haven’t said anything in a while. When making a big decision, you can ask yourself: will this help or hurt the women on our team’s ability to succeed in their role? All of these little things matter.
Delegate visible tasks
One of the easier things to do is to make sure that you give space and voice to marginalized groups on your team by giving them tasks that show visible results and expose them to many different stakeholders. This ensures that everyone e.g. women on your team get space to shine and show how amazing they are, but it also draws more diverse candidates to your team.
The secrets of great leaders and entrepreneurs are often not accessible to minorities. We don’t all have “the old boys club” to fall back on, and we don’t all have MBAs.That’s why we need to share what we know with each other.
Mentorship is a great way to achieve this. Organizations like the Female Factormake it easy to connect and share knowledge.
What are your ideas and suggestions on how to increase the % of female founders and break the vicious gender bias cycle? I’d love to hear them and support you in your efforts!
Let’s keep going! It’s worth it.
When I was standing in that hotel at the pitch event, frantically looking for my business card to show I am in fact a company founder, I felt what women feel every day when faced with gender bias.
I wondered: do I really deserve to be here? The answer is yes — even if I have to exert serious mental energy to convince myself of this fact. But it shouldn’t be so hard — for anyone.
Change won’t come overnight, but I’m optimistic because there’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop: the more “normal” it feels for marginalized people to hold positions of power, the less they’ll be discriminated against. We’ve got this!
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Want more frameworks for leveling up your tech leadership? Check out BUNCH, the AI Leadership coach I’m building with my team.