Guest Post by Jennifer Aldoretta
Women currently comprise approximately 46% of the workforce and 50% of college graduates in the United States. But if we look at the statistics for women holding “powerful” positions, we notice a stark difference: women make up 18.5% of Congress, 20% of the Senate, 18.2% of the House of Representatives, and a measly 4.2% of both Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs. A slightly higher 28.2% of US businesses are owned by women, but when we look at technology startups founded by women, the number plummets to an estimated 5%.
As a female founder of a technology startup, this divide has been cause for much contemplation and reflection over the past months. Why am I such a small minority? What effect will this have on the success of my company? And, most importantly, what can I personally do to help change this trend? In light of the recent criticism of comments made by Paul Graham (a prominent figure in the startup community) about female founders, I felt compelled to write about my personal experience as both a female founder and a woman in tech. For the record, I feel that Graham’s comments were taken out of context (and I am hopeful for his upcoming essay about female founders), but the situation did bring up an important conversation.
I recently studied a list of eight characteristics of a successful startup CEO, and I noticed something interesting: each one of these characteristics was one that a woman and a man are equally capable of possessing. It is not any more likely that a man will be passionate about his company; it is not any less likely that a woman will have vision; and a woman is not any more likely than a man to be adaptable.
There are many variables at play that contribute to the current divide between men and women in startups and technology. Differences in upbringing—including the toys we played with, the way our parents do or do not perpetuate gender stereotypes, and our social interactions with other children—are a huge deterrent for many otherwise capable women. Somehow, I defied those odds. I had wonderful parents who refused to let me dumb myself down and helped me to define my self-worth by my abilities and not my appearance or my gender.
Despite defying those odds, I continue to come back to one characteristic that I feel can make or break the success of a female startup founder: self-confidence. Before you form a snap judgment and accuse me of claiming that women have no self-confidence, allow me to explain. I’m not saying that women lack self-confidence. However, the type of confidence required for a female founder to convince a room full of powerful men (because it’s almost always all men) that her company is worth something is a very special breed of confidence. It’s not the type of confidence that I grew up with, and it is something that I have struggled with as a founder. This confidence is also one that boys likely did not grow up knowing. It is a confidence that a founder must learn, foster, and perfect. While male founders must also develop this breed of confidence, the women who manage to break through the gender gap and become successful founders must be fearless and possess this confidence in a way that no male founder will experience. And if you’re a non-white female, you can probably expect that to be compounded. As a female startup CEO, my confidence, my passion, my vision, and my expertise must oftentimes exceed that of my male counterparts to have the same effect, and in some cases, may even be counterproductive. I received my degree in mechanical engineering. In college, I was belittled and put down by male classmates when I was more capable of performing stereotypically “masculine” acts (like using tools or taking the lead on a group project). As a founder, I have been asked completely inappropriate questions about my personal relationship with my male cofounder. Yes, all of these things have actually happened. Luckily, experiences like these are not a daily occurrence, but they have still had a profound effect on me.
It is not the fault of powerful men if they have deep-seated, often subconscious, biases against female founders (or any other founder who does not fit the “norm”). After all, (white) men make up a large majority of powerful positions and have for a very long time. Some (but certainly not all) of these men are simply neither comfortable nor confident in a woman’s ability to lead. This is a very sad reality that I have come to know well. And, unfortunately, it is something that I must go into every meeting prepared to face.
As a woman in tech, I will never have the buddy-buddy relationship with a male boss, angel investor, founder, colleague, customer, or venture capitalist that often plays a vital role in the professional growth of my male counterparts. In my male-dominated profession, that often means I am on my own. I must be prepared for the things I say to be viewed as bitchy or bossy; I must be careful that being friendly will not be misconstrued; and I must worry about whether my choice of clothing, shoes, and even hairstyle will give the wrong impression. I must always hold part of myself back, but I must also put everything I have into my work. It is not an easy balance to maintain.
I am disappointed every time I hear that a female startup CEO was booted from her position and replaced with a man. It always makes me wonder. Was she simply not fit for the job? Was she not vehement enough in her self-confidence and her fearlessness? Was it because of her own subconscious gender biases? Or someone else’s?
Whatever the case may be, the experiences of female founders (my own included) have created a determination in me that I cannot explain. A determination that both fuels and compels me. I refuse to be a female founder who becomes marginalized. I do not place blame on the people who have been shaped by our society to think a certain way about women. But I do feel that it is my duty to fight it and change it. I will not let the biases of others define me, and my hope is that this mindset will help to clear the path for future generations of women.