“What a joke. As if I’m going to listen to some chick try and talk about sports…” read the comment, its blatant dismissal of my article staring back at me from the screen of my laptop.
I was just starting out as a junior writer, sharing my take on topics of lifestyle, health, fitness, and sports for a small, local university publication at the time. I remember the way that comment lingered, as did the many others that followed whenever I broached male-dominated subject matter in that coming year – simply because some male readers felt they had the authority to decide what I should or shouldn’t write about. Opinions that weren’t based on my knowledge, my candour, my credibility, but rather, my gender. It seemed so trivial, unfair even. But it also struck me as unavoidable; I wanted to play the game, which meant I was going to take some hits. So I had to learn to let those roll off me (even the ones that stung a bit), right?
Luckily, this early exposure to certain gender-specific challenges within my career path gifted me with some thick skin, badass female influences, and hard-learned lessons right out of the gate. With credit to that, any realization of ‘boys clubs’ dominating my respective industries since those early years has never done much to deter me. While my work as a freelance writer, marketer, and trainer has, at times, been touched by passing opinions that were surmised on account of my gender (good or bad), nothing has ever been able to stop me in my tracks. And I’ve watched, with patient enthusiasm, as our society has made important strides towards establishing a more equal playing field and diverse professional landscapes. However, we still have a long way to go.
The gender divide is real and, in the case of entrepreneurs, it can be a rather intimidating obstacle to overcome.
While sitting among the crowd at Tuesday’s DMZ Women in Tech event in collaboration with PayPal Canada: Scaling Women’s Entrepreneurship, I was immediately struck by the energy in the room. Looking around, I saw an eclectic group of students, young professionals ,and entrepreneurs amassed from different genders, backgrounds, and industries.
Everyone was there for the same reason: to gain a better understanding of how women can effectively start, grow, and scale their business – despite any perceived obstacles they might face. The panel included the likes of Andrew Graham, Karen Lau, Chioma Ifeanyi-okoro, Abdullah Snobar, Paul Parisi (President of PayPal Canada), and Arlene Dickinson (Founder of Venture Communications and a Dragon on CBC’s Dragons’ Den).
To get us started, Abdullah asked the question, Do we all have an equal seat at the table?
Chioma was quick to chime in, explaining that there is a massive disparity between male start-ups and female start-ups, especially in tech, and especially for women of colour. “Something we all need to do is acknowledge that we all have bias,” she said.
Chioma explained that it’s not just about equality for women, but about equality for all different groups: “When you talk about diversity only in terms of gender, we are doing a massive disservice to the conversation.” As a leader within a company, she noted that you should be intentional in your search for a diverse team, not just for show (‘diversity for the Gram’ she called it) but for real. Diversity must be acknowledged as an integral part of any company. After all, research has shown that diverse teams perform better, so don’t take the shortcut and accumulate “diversity debt” within your company; tackle this issue head on and from the outset.
Another member on the panel then went on to reference a study in which a business plan was sent to venture capitalists from two groups. The business plan was the same, but one listed male founders and one listed female founders. Guess which one was best received? You got it: the plan with the all-male team.
Further to that, it was noted that men still fiercely outnumber women as entrepreneurs, investors, and founders, 66% of female entrepreneurs don’t have a mentor, and just 12% of venture capital money was awarded to female start-ups this past year. When it comes to applying for jobs, women are shown as more likely to apply only if they feel they meet 100% of the job requirements, while men feel confident only meeting 60%. And contract negotiations? Men are decidedly better within negotiations, as women often ask about compensation last and may struggle to advocate for themselves during the ‘money conversation’.
Perhaps not the most compelling statistics to encounter as a burgeoning female entrepreneur.
Yet, throughout these discussions the panelists returned to a sentiment that especially resonated with me: don’t allow statistics to discourage what you are doing. Ignore the stats, and instead focus on creating value – a product or service that simply can’t be ignored. Entrepreneurship often (if not always) requires the capacity to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and the kahunas to be fearlessly confident in your pursuit (regardless of your gender) every time you give a pitch, enter a meeting, or engage in new partnerships. And ladies, it’s up to us to help other women and support each other. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is a small one, so it’s not hard to connect with other likeminded women (and men) if you find the right communities.
Arlene Dickinson and Paul Parisi took the stage next, and an excited hush fell over the crowd as Arlene smiled towards us. As candid and transparent as ever, she began to explain that she became an entrepreneur out of necessity. When she started out, there were no programs, incubators, mentors, etc. – it was really just about doing the job.
“Business is about perseverance against any obstacle. Whether you’re a man or a woman, you have to get people to care about what you’re doing. You can’t get caught up in the challenges, because there will always be people in your way. And remember that what makes you an entrepreneur is the same, whether you’re a male or a female,” said Dickinson.
Arlene went on to explain that as women, we need to change our internal script and stop comparing ourselves to men in our industry. The fact that we may think differently than our professional male cohorts shouldn’t be seen as a disadvantage. At her company, Venture Communications, she noted that at least 50% of her entire capital has gone to women. Not because it’s written anywhere, but because it’s the right idea and the right entrepreneur.
Men tend to be more practical and courageous about their ideas and businesses, so it’s up to women to be confident enough to earn the merit of venture capitalists and reframe the conversation. Our language is different, often more rooted in empathy, and that isn’t a bad thing. But we can’t let it undermine our potential as entrepreneurs and business leaders.
“Women, we need to stop downgrading ourselves to a tropical storm when we are a hurricane. No one owes you anything as an entrepreneur, you simply have to find a way to make it work. Demand the room. Dream so damn big and know that just by being in this room, by building your ideas and businesses, you’re already paving the way.”
To all my fellow female entrepreneurs and girl bosses, can I can a hell yeah to that?