Armor Up To Button Down

Over the past several decades, the tireless work of women across the world have brought positive change. We’ve seen women fight for their rights, hold a seat on the Supreme Court, travel to space, take home Olympic medals, create Oscar winning films, and change society for the better.

Today, we are inspired to see women and men TOGETHER bringing cutting edge innovation across all industries and driving the future forward at an accelerated pace. Thousands of companies, organizations, universities, cities, and even countries have made amazing strides toward empowering and encouraging women to continue pursuing their ambitions.

STILL, WE CANNOT HELP BUT NOTICE THAT GENDER INEQUALITY IS STILL REAL AND EXISTS.

Last week, Forbes published an anonymous first-hand account of what it is like to start your own company and raise money as a woman in Silicon Valley. Without naming names, this tech startup founder & CEO tells the story of the lack of acceptance she receives as a legitimate business person–even as the leader of a thriving technology company–when approaching investors to raise capital for her business.

And it’s not just from men. Women have stated to her face, she says, that she’s perceived as having climbed a certain ladder of acceptance on her looks, or on certain other skills. The piece is truly remarkable and eye-opening. We recommend everyone take a chance to read the full post embedded below.

The anonymous author asks us the question that we all are wondering, what’s to be done? “The answer isn’t more female-focused funds,” she says, “If I chose to solely approach women investors about my business, I would be dramatically reducing our funding options.”

“WHAT WE NEED IS A PUBLIC CONVERSATION ABOUT GENDER, POWER AND RESPECT.”

Women’s iLab opens our doors to men and women across all industries to share their experiences as they relate to gender, power, and respect for women in the workplace. The time is now to bring society to the next evolution of gender equality by empowering women to pursue their dreams and ambitions without the constraints of harassment or stereotypes.

Continue the conversation.  Share your (anonymous or public) story, advice, obstacle or what you are doing to shed light on this issue and make a change with us at info@womensilab.com or directly via our site here.

ORIGINAL POST| ARMORING UP: SURVIVING SEXISM AS A FEMALE FOUNDER

BY ANONYMOUS, FORBES, AUGUST 2014

As I walked down his front steps towards my car, laptop and business documents slung over my shoulder, I wondered how thick my skin really needed to be if I wanted to continue down this path. I had been put in another impossible situation, cornered by a lopsided power dynamic and subjected to what any HR department in the world would define as sexual harassment.

But I don’t work for a company. I run one. This wasn’t happening inside the confines of a tidy company with an employee handbook and a legal team. This was fair game – it was the wild west of fundraising and I needed to learn how to navigate the alpha male-dominated VC community as a female founder.

That particular Saturday started as usual. I picked up produce at the farmers market and headed into the office for what seemed like the twentieth consecutive day that month. Like most startup founders I work weekends to stay on top of the seemingly endless tasks that arise from my growing company.

After releasing our Android app earlier in the spring, I felt we were ready to approach investors about seed funding. Our app had been downloaded in 52 countries, we had an active base of supporters and we had revenue, something many startups in the Valley lack.  We’d also survived bootstrapping for almost 18 months, which was no minor achievement given that we started with less than $10,000 in the bank.

Engaging investors is a full-time job, so my schedule was busier than normal. As I sipped my second latte of the day, I sent out emails to those who had asked to be kept up to date on our fundraising efforts. One elicited a quick reply: “Sure. Let’s catch up. This evening. My house? I need to put the kids down.” We had met months earlier through a family acquaintance. A limited partner in a local VC firm and a known supporter of the arts, his interests aligned well with our mission. Since we had previously shared several civil lunch meetings, I didn’t give too much thought his choice of location.

Before heading out, I dashed home to change out of a dress into nondescript pants and a baggy high-necked sweater. I pulled my hair back and made sure that my makeup didn’t communicate anything other than professionalism. Assuming that his wife would be home, I didn’t want to give either of them the wrong idea.

None of that mattered. His wife wasn’t home. I quickly realized that none of the paperwork I had prepared mattered, either.

After some small talk, he sat next to me on the couch and commented that I looked stressed. He put down his glass of wine and reached to massage my shoulders. As he slid his hands further, I made a nervous joke, quickly trying to shift my weight away from him. I leaned into the corner of the couch and crossed my legs, attempting to put an obstacle in his way. Undeterred, he continued to reach for me.

I got up and walked across the room. Trying to keep it light, I comment on how often men made inappropriate advances towards me during business meetings, hoping he’d get the message.

“Yeah, that’s tough. You can’t really say anything because it’s one tight knit community,” he said, probably thinking he sounded sympathetic.

If I chose to complain—or make a scene and wake up his children who slept nearby—it would be another case of he said / she said, like the countless harassment cases that have made headlines in the tech community but have not done much to change status quo. Given his standing in the community and his personal wealth, who would believe my claims as anything more than those of a spurned little girl upset that a VC had chosen not to invest in her company?

The dance between work discussion and groping continued until I was able to finally excuse myself. In this case, I could have been more prudent. But sexism is a daily reality as I attempt to play ball in a man’s world.

A few months before my encounter with The Masseuse, there was The Bachelor. After hearing our business plan, he said he was interested in spending more time getting to know me. He was looking for a wife, he continued, sans segue, then proceeded to enumerate all the monetary advantages that wife would enjoy, including a $4 million apartment in San Francisco. As in many similar situations, I attempted to politely pivot the conversation in order to not bruise the ego of the man who had just proposed something akin to an 18th century marriage of convenience.

Shortly after this encounter, I began wearing a simple gold band to meetings. It might be awkward to explain, should a potential investor ask about my spouse, but the awkwardness it might deter was far greater.

I know too well that when victims of harassment remain silent, the problem continues and the perpetrator evades justice. But this was business. Every person I told about The Bachelor agreed that I would need to go with the flow until we finished our raise. It seemed that silence was just one of the sacrifices required to get my business off the ground.

Unlike my male peers, who could wear anything from jeans and a hoodie to a well-tailored suit, I had to choose my attire carefully. Feminine but not sexy, structured but not form fitting, classy but not too expensive, lest I imply that I was bad at bootstrapping and not “scrappy enough,” professional but not so stuffy that people would assume our product lacked creativity. My hair was almost always worn in a bun or pulled back conservatively.

During the ten years that I worked in international development, clothing was a tool to defuse gender, a strategy for gaining access to an almost exclusively male professional environment. We referred to it as “taking on the third gender.”  For all its self-regard as the most forward-thinking place on earth, it seemed I would need to use the same tactics in Silicon Valley.*

But I had to interrogate more than the way I dressed. I had to recast how I was viewed as a businessperson. I asked my allies and colleagues to stop using certain descriptions—“force of nature,” “fire cracker”—because they were loaded with gender assumptions. I asked our business development lead to remove gender-specific pronouns from his initial descriptions of the company and me, and instead to say things like, “This CEO is exceptional. I’ve never seen an entrepreneur work so hard.” The longer we went without mentioning my gender, it turned out, the further the conversations progressed.

My experience is not unique. Ask Whitney Wolfe. Ask Kathryn Minshew. Ask Heidi RoizenMistreatment of female founders, it seems, is a feature, not a bug, of Silicon Valley.

If we believe this issue is isolated to an older generation that ‘doesn’t know better’, we can review the comments of 28-year-old Justin Mateen, who stated that having a young female cofounder at Tinder “makes the company seem like a joke” and “devalues” it. Or the comments of the male 20-something Twitter employee, who told me, “You should really hire a nerdy looking dude to represent your company publicly. You know, to make up for your looks.”

It’s not merely the men. Sometimes women help perpetuate the same tropes. Once while presenting to a group, the only female on the panel began an onslaught of questions, including “Did your daddy give you money?” “Are you old enough to drive?” and “How are you going to run up the corporate ladder in those shoes?” What was billed as a 20-minute pitch turned into a three-and-half hour inquisition.

My team and I joke about this pitch now, but it’s no joke that I now arrive at investor meetings prepared to field inappropriate personal questions just as often as I field questions about our CAC, revenue projections and expected exit.

Finding safe spaces to network can also be difficult. Many of my male CEO colleagues build their networks through casual interactions around town, most often at bars. “Once you’ve gotten drunk with someone, you’re ‘buddies’,” explained a fellow founder.  “It makes it easier to call in a favor or get an introduction later.”

But maintaining one’s identity as a CEO outside of the workplace can be difficult. Women in bars, on boats, and at conferences are often there as significant others or just as a pretty thing (sometimes hired as “atmosphere models” or “booth babes”).

Take the time an angel investor invited me to join him and some VCs on a yacht so I could “get to know them better in a relaxed setting.” This same investor, I knew, had told one of my male colleagues that his boat trips are epic because “there are always multiple blondes to every guy.”

So what’s to be done? The answer isn’t more female-focused funds. If I chose to solely approach women investors about my business, I would be dramatically reducing our funding options.

What we need is a public conversation about gender, power and respect, one that’s not just women talking to other women.

As Amanda Hess noted it is difficult for men to see misogyny. Even The Masseuse continues to contact me regarding our investment progress – a clear sign that without direct confrontation about his impropriety, he is unaware how his actions were perceived.

It is not just the perpetrators of abuse who are clueless. Many of the amazing men – some who have invested in our company, others who call me boss – are oblivious to the additional hurdles and harassment I face on a daily basis. These men can be allies, but not if they are left out of the conversation.

It’s past time for investors, particularly those in the growing pool of angels, to consider carefully how their position of power affects their social interactions with entrepreneurs. Just as an employer is never justified in approaching an employee about sexual relations, whether or not he thinks his advance might be welcomed, investors should be equally prudent.

There will never be a human resources department to govern the interactions between a founder and a potential funder. That’s why when I, or any female founder, shows up at your door, or at a restaurant or at a bar, you should assume I’m here to do business and nothing more. Even if — gasp! — I’m wearing my hair down.

As I’ve told those who comment on my appearance: I don’t run my company with anything you can see – I run my company using what’s inside my skull. The faster we all internalize this truth, the better off we will all be.

I look forward to the day when my gender does not affect how people view my business. In the meantime, if women in tech are going to lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg exhorts us, we also must armor up.