Behind Every Successful Woman Is Herself – And a Lot of Social Bias

Debunking Stereotypes of Women in Business

Gender bias; sometimes shockingly apparent, sometimes subconsciously present. Many stereotypes are as old as time; many re-discussed year after year. So why mention them again? Because we need to. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the barriers that continue to exist for women in business. Stereotypes and anecdotes may lead to a good laugh at a dinner party and are sometimes faced with humorous responses, however, they greatly influence how we perceive us and others. So, acknowledging and simultaneously debunking widely held perceptions about women, is a crucial part of the pathway to split from gender-biased clichés and leave them behind once and for all.

Myth #1: Women Are Too Emotional to Be in Leadership Roles

Despite progress and initiatives to achieve gender equality in the workspace, the representation of women in leadership roles leaves much to be desired. In 2020, the proportion of women in leadership positions was only 29% (same as the year before) across the globe. Negative stereotypes persist and whether or not women are even suited for senior management roles is still being discussed. 

“You’re too emotional.” Too many women have heard this sentence before. Meanwhile, it’s generally accepted if men lash out in the boardroom. Women are attributed to be emotional, sensitive, and caring, while men are said to be confident, rational, and achievement-oriented. Oh, and women who do not show enough emotion, don’t live up to the stereotype of being the compassionate “caregiver” and thus, are perceived to be cold and aloof. 

The general public believes that women are less suited for decision-making roles due to greater feelings of emotion. But are women really more emotional than men? No. Turns out, the belief that women experience greater emotionality than men is inaccurate. So why do people think that women are more emotional? This perception can be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to show their emotions through facial expressions. → However, the perception that emotions inhibit logic is wrong. So let’s distance ourselves from the thought of emotions getting in the way or, should we say, a women’s way. If anything, addressing emotionality and having a high level of emotional intelligence can open doors to transparency, shape interactions, and build stronger teams.

Myth #2: Female Entrepreneurs Have a Low Risk Tolerance & Little Appetite for External Funding

The rhetoric around women in entrepreneurship has often focused on how females are more risk-averse than their male counterparts. The hypothesis is that female entrepreneurs are less likely to seek external funding for their business due to the high risks that come alongside financing. 

While on a societal level, the stereotype of women being more risk-averse holds ground, there are mixed findings in research regarding the degree to which female entrepreneurs take risks, when it comes to financing. Some say due to a fear of a negative experience when borrowing from investors or banks, female entrepreneurs prefer to seek funding from family and friends. Others have found that women are more likely to use their own credit or take out home equity loans to finance their business. The latter being attributed to the gender bias involved in the startup funding process. A Venture Capital study found that being female significantly decreases the probability of asking for financing. Yet why is asking for money always attributed to the personal risk factor? 

For many female entrepreneurs it’s not the risk that comes with financing itself, but the uncertainty that comes with the ability to secure funding in the first place. Women who are aware of the funding gap may not take risk becoming an entrepreneur if they believe the chances of receiving financing are slim. This places risk at a different stage of the startup lifecycle and pins it on a different source. 

We also want to point out that in early-stage entrepreneurship, the network plays a crucial role. Entrepreneurs need more access to individuals who can share information about different funding options. Today, the matter of fact is that VC networks are still mostly male-dominated, bringing larger barriers to entry for females. So, instead of solely attributing the lack of appetite for external funding to female entrepreneurs being more risk-averse, let’s look at the larger construct and different factors that play into the gender funding gap. → Women can have an appetite for external funding but might be imprinted with a realistic perception of the current funding gap and face a large barrier of entry to VC networks. 

Myth #3: Women Lack the Self-Confidence Needed to Be Successful in Business

Self-confidence is an essential trait for personal and professional success. However, not everyone possesses self-confidence. A report by BCG found that men often oversell and deliver bold promises, while women tend to be more conservative in their projections. Also, women often don’t apply for a job posting until they are certain that they can meet 100% of the requirements and qualifications. For men, on the other hand, the threshold to overcome is only around 60%. 

Systemically women are often placed in a box, where they are mostly responsible for household chores and childcare. While not always the case or consciously perceived by individuals, it is anchored in unconscious bias. Conversely, technological and financial know-how, as well as professional leadership qualities are mainly associated with the male gender. So when it comes to addressing professional topics, people usually turn to men. These are all reasons that outwardly point to low self-confidence.

Let’s do a reality check and see what this looks like in the business and startup ecosystem. The average age of female and male founders is 35 years old. According to Forbes, women’s self-confidence increases more with age than men’s. Women are more hesitant to start their own business, but when they do, they usually have been working on the theoretical concept of their idea longer, are more security-oriented, and set more realistic goals than their male counterparts. In an interview, Katharina Kreitz, Co-Founder of Vectoflow emphasizes that women should not lean back and let things take their course. Women have to work hard and often harder than men to reflect self-confidence and to stand up to the male competition.

Additionally, women tend to think things through throughrougly and take a more structured approach to ideas. And, it’s proven that women are successful putting ideas into action. → Research shows that companies founded and co-founded by women outperformed those founded by men and “deliver twice as much per dollar invested” and over a five-year period, women-owned businesses generated 10% more cumulative revenue: $730,000 compared to $662,000. Meaning women have the confidence and skills needed to be successful.

Myth #4: Women Can’t Have it All

Looking at the numbers, only 39% of women are part of the global work force. It is a widely accepted cliché that women can’t have it all – both career and family, and obviously, the higher you climb on the career ladder, the more difficult it gets to balance both. There is a viral quote that may sound familiar for many women: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they didn’t work.” Having children certainly brings many changes and new challenges to a family and there is no doubt that kids require intensive care and attention, especially during the first years. 

Nevertheless, women like German Accelerator Alumnae Michaela Hagemann, who founded das boep shortly after having her first daughter, or Anna Yona, mother of three, who together with her husband, launched the shoe startup Wilding (as a fully remote company from day one), are just two examples of women who combine both. One piece of the puzzle lies in the compatibility of work and family that allows parents to work from home or shift working hours whenever possible. In our Startup Stereo Episode #02 – Work and Family Under One Roof, Anna explains how her family successfully tackles the challenge of intertwining business and family life. Also important, a team and corporate culture where people work together, be patient, and empathetic. 

More flexibility and equal distribution of roles would certainly improve the situation and give women who seek leadership positions, plan to start a company, or also just work a regular 9-to-5 job, the chance to pursue their goals. It’s important to increase the amount of “in-between” solutions, where it’s not “either or” or “women versus men” but a joint solution for the entire family – regardless of gender and beyond “traditional” family models. → With the right work-life balance, an equal distribution of gender roles, and a flexible work environment, women can have it all. 

Myth #5: Behind Every Successful Woman is Herself

Last but not least, one of the major clichés today is the widespread belief that “behind every successful woman is herself,” in other words, if she has enough grit she can succeed on her own. This is concerning because success and failure are not highly individualized, and portraying it as such is a debilitator in the larger debate. We want women to feel empowered and as though they can overcome adversity, yet, whether we debunk the stereotypes or not, they are out there and keeping women from being successful. 

Let’s look at some examples. If a woman perceives herself as being empowered and applies for funding but does not succeed, she is likely to think of herself as “not good enough” or her idea as “insufficient,” yet this ignores the actual structural barriers and biases that are still present today. In this case, it is the funding-gap, where startups founded by women only receive a mere 3% of the funding available

The same thing goes for leadership positions. Today, only 7% of women hold positions in U.S. boardrooms. It is important to note that when hiring for leadership positions, the criteria for success are set by a mostly all-male boardroom. Although women may be perfectly qualified for the job, their male colleagues may feel as though women might not execute the role to satisfaction, e.g., emotional intelligence being mistaken for “being too emotional.” → This doesn’t mean women are not or will not be successful at their job or on their own, it means that they are not successful according to pre-set criteria and bias on how women in business should lead today. It is important to point out that there is a difference between feeling, acting, and being empowered. 

On a Final Note

Women feeling empowered should be actively celebrated within our culture today.  Nonetheless, if women can’t act upon this empowerment, it can cause the opposite effect than intended, with the danger of leaving individuals feeling less legitimized than before. We need to acknowledge that behind every woman is herself, along with a social construct that greatly influences the chances of success. Current statistics around female entrepreneurs and women in business reinforce the importance of keeping the topic at the top of our agendas.

Actively addressing bias (especially subconscious bias) is difficult for everyone. We are socialized as part of our culture, which influences how we think and perceive others, i.e., why we have stereotypes. On top of that, we as humans need to use bias to process information in our increasingly fast-paced world quickly. Prejudices actively hinder progress and can be detrimental for women trying to enter previously mostly homogeneous business fields. We need to come together, and every individual needs to work on detecting their own subconscious bias to then actively work against it. There are so many incredible women out there – just take a look at the success stories German Entrepreneurship put together in honor of International Women’s Day to highlight a few – and many more to come! Let’s pave the way for future generations!

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