Fighting Gender Discrimination in Funding

Trigger warning: I’m not going to offer a comfortable or even politically correct solution in this post. I want to add real value to female founders, so they know how to counter misogynistic behavior or frighten off the true manipulators. So, I’m following a social science rule: make NO assumptions as you explore causality in social relations. And I also want to be practical. Practical isn’t always how you want to behave. Trust me as someone with Aspergers, I live with that problem every day.

One assumption we shouldn’t be making (that many frustrated, underfunded founders make) is right in our faces: founders of any gender tend to come off as professional business people. As an early-stage advisor, I can tell you this is NOT true, regardless of gender. Most startup founders I meet don’t come off as seasoned business pros. They act very green. They don’t know their numbers. Their tone of voice is dreamy and goofy, not grounded in the cruel realities of a CPG operation. It may also be true that incompetent-appearing male founders get ‘forgiven’ more often by investors who simply like their product. I’m confident this is a reasonable working hypothesis. But I don’t know this is true. It’s challenging to prove discrimination, BTW. 

One consequence of broad, historical gender bias in American business is that men still dominate the ranks of MBA and BA Business degree holders. Men gravitate to business more than women culturally. This pattern is centuries old. Many women in CPG came to business for the first time through the creator portal. If this is you, you have to accept that you have a huge scarlet letter on your jacket: NOT A SERIOUS BUSINESS PERSON. 

This stigma is different from bias against women but not unrelated. It’s a bias against the liberal arts crowd. Trust me; I’ve lived this bias for decades…as a man who entered the business world without an official degree. 

But, if my hypothesis above is true, female founders can’t do anything to stop the pattern of gender-biased forgiveness of incompetent male founders. What you DO control is your professional appearance. Am I suggesting you try harder than the men?

Yes. Sorry.

Because your social impressions are what you control now. It will take decades for the misogynistic old guard to get replaced by folks who unconsciously take women more seriously, seriously enough to forgive signals of incompetency. Trust me. You don’t have decades, so change what you control. I know it’s frustrating, infuriating. But you’re largely trying to convince older white men when seeking funding.

Here are my tips:

  • Accuse yourself to disarm the good male investors – only do this in person, but a proven negotiation technique is to open up any conversation where you intend to pitch/ask for money with – “hey, I know I might appear like the typical goofy female, artsy-fartsy founder, but here’s why you’d be wrong.” This linguistic technique will force all but a sociopath to be on high alert of being a dick. This empathy may be fleeting, but it’s real. 
  • Hire experts/mentors with deep credentials to add to your impression package. Make your lack of an MBA or business degree disappear in a symbolic context of brilliant advice. Again, you’re acknowledging that you have gaps, filling them like a pro, and not avoiding them. This helps mask any naivete.
  • Do not complain/whine about all the problems you’ve faced. Ever. Older men were trained to beat the shit out of male whiners, to stuff their heads in toilets. I’ve seen it. Don’t play into this dynamic, even if you ‘confess’ this with your female peers. Older men, especially, can’t stand this. They’ll be dead soon, but unlikely to change.
  • Build a platonic relationship with a male investor BEFORE you ask. I can’t tell you how many female founders are afraid to do this because they either a) are terrified of sexual harassment, b) or simply don’t understand how (maybe they didn’t have brothers growing up). The hesitancy to build the relationship due to the gender divide makes it more likely that female founders are approaching men they don’t know with hasty asks. Hasty smells risky and weird AND invites predators to eat you and your business.

I hope this helps, even if it offends a little.

Dr. James Richardson

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