Female Founders

Gender stereotypes in start-ups and the role of public institutions


Is there any difference between female and male founders? In my interviews, that argument would often come up. Women doubt themselves. They are shy. They do not take enough risks.

Quickly, I discovered that it is difficult to have any discussion on gender without bringing these stereotypes forward. This has two negative consequences. First, women self-censor because they do not recognise themselves in the typical entrepreneur profile. Out of the 8 female founders that I have interviewed, 5 of them believe that women’s personality traits are the biggest barrier to build a start-up. Second, industry actors (accelerators, investors, public institutions) will act differently around women, thus strengthening the gender bias.

The answer to the question is, unfortunately, yes – there are differences between male and female founders. However, these are not biological differences. Men and women are simply socialised and treated differently. Even in an innovative and open-minded industry like tech start-ups, stereotypes dictate how people act with each others.

My research shows that the government and public institutions have a role to play in changing gender stereotypes. Here are some of the solutions that they can implement:

Setting up affirmative actions

The term “affirmative action” is a loaded one. It was the subject of much controversy in my research. Interestingly, all of the interviewees that were in favour of it were women. But most of the people I have interviewed (90%) were strongly against it. Indeed, at the core of the startup industry stands a powerful meritocratic culture. The collective belief is as follows: the successful founders are the most deserving ones, those who have the best skills and work the hardest. It’s a beautiful ideology, which would work in a perfect world.

Our world isn’t perfect. There is an inherent flaw in the system – people are biased. Every accelerator, investor, mentor, and founder hold their own individual set of beliefs and stereotypes, which will influence the success or failure of start-ups. That is why implementing quotas and benefits for women would have a positive impact on the industry. So far, French legislation only imposes gender equality regulation on companies with more than 50 employees. Public institutions must also look at start-ups with affirmative action policies.

Promoting role-models

“You can’t be what you can’t see”. This famous quote by Marie Wilson truly comes into light in the entrepreneurial scene. “Heroes” of start-up founders have always been men such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. While highly successful female entrepreneurs exist, they receive less public attention than their male peers. In consequence, women are much less likely to pursue an education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or an entrepreneurial career. Interestingly, the lack of female role-models also affects the retention and performance of women already in these fields. For instance, taking a calculus course with a female professor enhances women’s implicit attitude towards maths compared to taking a calculus course with a male professor.

That is why female-centric programs, networks and events are important to check out. There, women can meet mentors that inspire them, and push them to become start-up founders. In France, the government has recently launched Femmes@Numérique, an initiative to promote women in tech. This program could have an influence on gender bias by bringing awareness to the general public and challenging stereotypes. There are also private networks in the entrepreneurial scene in France and The Netherlands:

Implementing family policies

Being a female entrepreneur is not only challenging because you are a founder in a male-dominated and highly competitive industry. It is also difficult because you assume many roles – founder, mother, partner, daughter… Today around the world, women are still largely responsible for domestic work and childcare. Public institutions must implement legislations to enable women to lead a company while being mothers and wives. For instance, laws could require private companies, like accelerator programs, to set up dedicated breastfeeding areas, organise partnerships with day-care centers and flexible events to match with school schedules and summer holidays…

It is crucial to allow female founders to balance their professional and personal life. Female employees should benefit from these legislations as well. Indeed, a recent study by Marina Bourgain and Pierre Chaudat shows that motherhood is especially perceived as a career barrier for start-up employees, while female founders present their companies as a real opportunity for work/life balance.

If you’d like to learn more about gender stereotypes and public institutions in the entrepreneurship scene, find more resources below:

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