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In Startup Land, Sexism & The Man Card Still Rule

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: May 13, 2016


It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially for those of us raised on a steady diet of the bootstrap myth. You know the one: that your own individual effort is all it takes to lift you up the social or economic ladder. The myth is perpetuated in all societies, or pockets thereof, that prize individualism above community, and it’s the primary theme in most movies and books where a central character (usually a man) overcomes, well, pretty much anything.

The myth took root in the 1890s, when the novels of Horatio Alger portrayed impoverished teenaged boys pulling themselves out of poverty and into middle class stability through hard work and determination. At that point, their ability to reach the next level was limited only by their motivation to do so.

Well over a hundred years later, we keep this concept close because it gives us hope for what we can achieve. We hold onto it because it makes us feels safe, and makes us believe that although the world is a wild place so often out of our control, at least everybody has a fair shot if they’re willing to work for it.

And do you know who holds onto this myth especially tight, who contributes most to perpetuating it and trying to get other people to buy into it? Men, like me, who benefit from it the most.

Men, especially white men, have believed in this myth for years. We’ve sprinkled it on our cereal each morning and on our pillow each night. Now, would you just look at our success? How can you deny it? We worked hard and we’re on top of the world, and thanks to the bootstrapping myth we can point to how we did it all by ourselves and, by god, so can you, if you buy our book and subscribe to our newsletter.

It’s the perfect validation, further reinforced when we all praise yet another wealthy, highly-educated man’s inspiring ability to throw caution to the wind and put all of his money into an idea—even to the point of, gasp!, having to borrow money from his wealthy friends just to make rent.

It’s a validation then reinforced in multiples when these wealthy, highly-educated men humble brag all over the place after their company booms, and when we amplify their humble bragging by holding the surface of their courageous and inspiring stories up on platinum pedestals.

But what are we praising, exactly? What are we praising when, as every study tells us is the norm, those born at the top of the economic ladder… stay there? In some ways it’s like we’re wishing them a happy birthday by instead saying “congratulations.” We’re basically praising an expected outcome as though it were unlikely, as though it came from an Alger novel.

To be fair, privilege—and we all have it to varying degrees—has helped give rise to modern civilization and to so many of the technological advances that are an integral part of our lives. If we hadn’t figured out ways to produce more grain, and then store those grains, for example, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of time to think about doing other things—such as establishing schools. Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, is essentially an historical mapping of how one people’s breakthrough and resulting privilege led to the next.

But, according to Kai Peter Stabell, Principal at Consortium for Conversational Conflict Resolution, who has spent seven years working with the United Nations Development Programme, except for some brief stints throughout history, men, typically through immense violence, have held the lion’s share of this privilege.

As men we must recognize our privilege,” Stabell said at his keynote speech for Arcadia University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution master’s program a few weeks ago. “And once we recognize the built-in advantages society grants to us, it’s important that we find ways to break it down and be an ally for the genuine empowerment of women. Otherwise we’re just continuing this ancient cycle, and none of us, men or women, will reach our full potential.”

Stabell’s talk was preceded by a panel of three women peacebuilders: Charlotte DiBartolomeo, CEO and co-founder of the Red Kite Project; Sharon Katz, activist-musician and founder of The Peace Train; and Jessica McKinney, a women’s health specialist and co-founder of Marathon Physical Therapy.

As three incredibly successful women in a variety of fields, DiBartolomeo, Katz, and McKinney shared some of the challenges they’ve faced based on their gender. Just so that’s clear: three successful leaders, women who have started incredible companies in both the private and public sectors, have faced certain challenges simply because they are women.

A story from DiBartolomeo was especially poignant:

When I bring up an idea during a meeting, the men in the room often attribute the idea to one of my sons or to another man in the room. Sometimes it will happen during the meeting, or sometimes a few weeks later. I’m not here to complain about it, but I think it’s important to point out that these are the kind of micro-challenges women face even when we’re in positions of leadership.”

DiBartolomeo’s point is an important one. When we hear “sexism” we tend to think of the worst and most grimy forms of it—cat-calling, misogynistic sleazeballs who make known their thoughts about how women are somehow inferior. Her story illuminates the kind of everyday sexism (here’s an amazing site for more examples) that even men who are trying to be allies still commit.

Likewise, many of us, men and women, tend to think of sexism as only and maybe still being prevalent in the old guard traditional businesses that have been around for decades and that have been handed off from one old white dude to the next. There’s no way that startups, with their finger on the pulse of all things hip—in-house yoga studios and espresso bars—would let that nonsense be part of their culture.


And yet, though this Catalyst study shows that women make up about 50% of all managers in the total workforce, this Kauffman Foundation study shows that “women-owned businesses account for just 28 percent of all businesses and only 16 percent of all employer-owned businesses.” And the odds only seem to get more stacked in Startup Land, where:

–Companies headed by male executives receive 98% of all venture investments ($1.88 billion)

–VC industry partners are 89% male (and 76% white male)

–Women entrepreneurs only receive about 19% of all angel funding (PDF here)

These are, of course, countered with all types of arguments, as is typical from the majority when that majority reigns over and benefits from such disparities. Some arguments, though, are far better than others.

One of the better ones is mentioned in a study at Berkeley’s Fung Institute (PDF here), where researchers rightly gave a nod to a previous study which concluded “that this low level of funding was at least partially caused by the relatively small number of women employed in the venture capital industry” before asserting the likelihood that women “may face more covert forms of discrimination” including “structural barriers, particularly in their attempts to raise external equity.”

Ahh, but even heaping helpings of statistics and personal stories of sexism in Silicon Valley aren’t enough to break through the ol’ bootstrapping myth. Take, for example, this question on Quora:


Such questions, usually by someone so steeped in their privilege that they’re blind to any of the structural and systemic barriers women face, then give rise to notions that women, by their nature, lack “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Oh yes. We admire startup founders more than ever before, so much so that everything they do, every move they make, every shitty blog post they write shines like a beacon in the night. As Gabriella Rockoff put it, we’re in an age that could be called the cult of the entrepreneur.

And from those platinum pedestals, the elites yell down: Entrepreneurs are born, not made!

Us mere mortals can only hear the echoes of their beautiful words, but the effect is exactly what they want: to create an even deeper chasm between their success and our chance of achieving anything close to it. It all propels this absurd notion that entrepreneurs are born, not made. Even Gary Vee bought into this, comparing entrepreneurial success to success in the NBA—both are a result of work ethic and, as Gary put it, require people “from a certain breed” that have “entrepreneurial DNA.”

Turns out Gary has a point, but it’s not the one he made. If indeed the best way to be a startup leader isn’t to get your MBA or link up with the most innovative minds in your sector, if indeed it’s not about buckling down and studying the history of startups or even seeing an opening for a product and then going all-in on it, it’s this: choose your parents. And you better choose white, wealthy parents. And those white, wealthy parents you chose better have a boy. And that boy better be you.


Now before you think I’m crazy enough to call out a legend, I want you to relax because indeed I am. Gary is awesome, an absolute badass, he hustles and I’ve learned much from him. But he’s benefitted so immensely from his privilege (yes, yes, I know he’s from Belarus, but he goes by Gary and… just look at him) in ways say, a minority woman simply never could.

Consider for a moment this passage from MIT professor Fiona Murray in The Boston Globe:

With colleagues at Harvard Business School and The Wharton School, I recently conducted a study that involved video pitches for new companies that used slides, an identical script, and a voice-over from either a male or female ‘founder.’ It turned out that companies pitched by men were about 40 percent more likely to receive funding than those led by women.”

And these type of ingrained biases are in addition to the million microaggressions women would have faced just to get to the point of pitching, to how they’ve likely had credit taken away from them at various points in their career trajectory, to how they may have been looked down on in an interview based on how they answered, “Well, are you planning on having a kid?” and how, once they made it through all that, they still face the uphill battle of getting access to capital, and then even when they beat the odds and get that capital there will likely come a time where they are seen as a “bitch” or far worse just for embracing the same qualities that make men “strong, tough leaders.”

So, no, there’s isn’t a “special gene” for entrepreneurial risk-taking that men seem to possess more often than women. It’s sexism and access to capital that’s stacking the cards. It’s patriarchy and being born a wealthy man and having this access that opens up the ability to take such risks. When basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully easy to take the terrible but maybe stable job so you can survive than it is to be creative and take risks. This intersection of creativity and reckless risk-taking is often the segregated (intentionally or not) playground where the already-wealthy men get to play.

How to solve such a complex challenge?

It’s both easy and important to point the finger and say modern entrepreneurship is the ultimate example of white male privilege, because it is. But it’s also important to find ways to address the problem. As Stabell said, “none of us, men or women, will reach our full potential” unless we break this ancient cycle.

For starters, the progressive team at Lean Startup Co, who we featured here, admittedly struggled with the same problem. The speakers at their annual conference, as Sarah Milstein wrote in her article for Harvard Business Review titled, Putting an End to Conferences Dominated By White Men, “were almost all white men.” When she was brought in to help, (she actually served as CEO of Lean Startup Productions), she took a few steps that I think are applicable to a variety of teams. Her #1 point is a crucial one:

As a leader, commit yourself to improving your selection process. Studies show that bringing in decision-makers from under-represented groups will help your organization attract more similar people. While doing so will likely improve your team and undoubtedly sends a positive signal, it’s not a magic bullet.”

In her second point, she says instead of simply writing that you “welcome people from groups under-represented in your community,” go further, totally transparent and vulnerable and authentic, to the point of actually saying, “you’ve contributed to the problem in the past (or if your event is new, showing your understanding of how imbalances arise), and concrete things you’re doing to make change.”

Milstein, offers 7 other suggestions, and I suggest you go check them out to see how/if they apply to how you’re building out your team.

Last but not least is this piece from Stanford professor Shelley Correll and research director Caroline Simard suggesting that it’s vague feedback that stops women from rising through the executive ranks and leading/starting companies:

Our research suggests these trends [of men receiving specific, actionable feedback about how to improve, and women receiving vague comments] may result from unconscious bias. Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s care-giving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.”

And what about when a woman is pushing the boundaries, and standing up as a leader? She’s likely pushed back down and into place. The researchers found that “76% of references to being ‘too aggressive’ happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.”

If your startup is focused on disrupting an industry, and you’re adhering like glue to the status quo of gender inequity, you’re not disrupting anything; you’re just kicking a new can down an old and broken road.

And chances are you’re not reaching your full potential, either, because you’re certainly not understanding the deep ways that sexism and patriarchy influence decisions at all levels. As leaders, it behooves us to know about our own privilege, to support and understand the importance of organizations like the Women’s Debate Institute, Women 2.0, and Ladies Learning Code.

As men, we must serve as allies. We must know that sometimes this means shutting up and simply listening. It means knowing what the Bechdel test is seeking to address, reading without judgment something from Michael Kimmel, and developing to the point where we cringe when a white and born-wealthy male politician calls out a more qualified female candidate for having nothing except her ability to play the “woman’s card.”

It means knowing, somewhere deep inside ourselves, that sexism is still pervasive, and that the “man’s card” is still so dominant that it doesn’t even have to be played to dominate.


Images: Bully

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