The Case for Female Entrepreneurship: Why It Matters

Gender imbalance is still alive and well, whether we want to admit it or not. On the S&P 500 list, only 20 of these companies have female CEOs. Even more startling is the fact that women make up 45% of the workforce, but only 5% of the CEOs at these companies. Even though this 5% is a historical all-time high, it reflects the long journey that we, as a society, must work towards encouraging women to take leadership roles.

In a society that applauds itself for its forward thinking in many areas of social justice (e.g. sexism, racism), we are still a long way from making women feel welcomed in the entrepreneurship space. Often times, the pressures that face female professionals are unintentional, stemming from old institutions whose structures are outdated. As a female entrepreneur in the tech space, I hope to shed light on the intricacies of what is happening.

First, a story. I started my journey into entrepreneurship about seven years ago, when I opened my first summer camp. I was in undergrad, and I decided to channel my ability as an exceptional writer to build Essay Writing for Teens. At the time, families in the area were desperate to find educators who could teach the essay writing process from beginning to end, something that is often neglected at schools. I was young, and passionate, and brave, I went into this venture head first. It was not until much later that I realized how unusual this was.

Growing up, I was surrounded by strong and empowering women. My grandmothers (on both sides of the family) ran lucrative businesses, ranging from food to clothing. My favourite and closest relative, my aunt, was an executive for a top tech company in Canada. I was lucky.

Even as a little girl, my parents never doubted my ability to succeed. If anything, they were overly optimistic, and I am forever grateful for their faith in me. I remember numerous talks at the table about their dreams for me, how they wanted me to own my own company someday, so that I could create the life and the impact I wanted on this world. It was not a matter of if I would create a company, but when.

It was not until third-year university that I realized how unusual (and fortunate) my upbringing was. I was taking a social psychology class on stereotypes, and it shocked me to my core. I knew none of these stereotypes growing up! Girls being terrible at math? I was a nationally-ranked math competitor. Girls disliking science and technology? I was taking life sciences, and I grew up around computers my whole life. What was everyone talking about?!

In the last few years, I have gotten a deeper understanding of how these stereotypes facing women affect our ability to succeed in the entrepreneurship space. The last three years, I have started attending startup and tech events in Toronto, and the gender ratios are startling. I have been at events where there are maybe 2 women for every 10 men in the room. And out of those women, finding female founders are like a needle in a haystack. No joke.

As an educator, I implore us to encourage females, when they are young, to take risks, reject perfection, and find our own voice. All too often, female students who are assertive are deemed as bossy know-it-alls; just look at famous characters like Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. Yet, when male students exhibit the same characteristics (see Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook), they are lauded for their courage and tenacity.

In fact, a famous psychology experiment studied this dynamic using two variables: competence and warmth. When men exhibit high competence and high warmth (e.g. an ambitious professional who was also a father), he was the most respected and liked by his peers. However, men who exhibit high competence and low warmth (e.g. an ambitious professional who was unmarried), still earned the respect of his peers for his talents in the workplace.

Unfortunately, when women exhibit high competence and low warmth (e.g. a tell-it-like-it-is woman in an executive role), she is considered cold and unlikable (think Hillary Clinton). Furthermore, when women exhibit high warmth (e.g. motherhood), they are deemed incompetent. Thus, as psychology Amy Cuddy says, women experience a "motherhood penalty" and men experience a "fatherhood bonus." Women lose out either way.

SheEO founder Vicki Saunders recently published a book called Think Like a SheEO, a sort of manifesto and how-to book for the aspiring female entrepreneur. In it, she discusses how the venture capitalist (VC) model is not applicable to many female entrepreneurs. The VC game is male-dominated, with few female-owned ventures and even fewer female investors. She advocates that women need to create their business on their own terms, and to understand that there are many paths to success, not just VC funding.

What does all this mean for female entrepreneurship? It means that we need to encourage our females, young and old, to fight past the fear and to create something of their own. It means acknowledging the constraints that are there, but finding a new way to play. It means creating our own rules, our own ways of making impact on the world. Let us be the change we want to see.

*Addendum: If you are interested in learning more about female entrepreneurship, I recommend these books:

  1. The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
  2. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  3. Think Like a SheEO by Vicki Saunders
  4. #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
  5. Quiet by Susan Cain