When I launched a business, almost everyone I spoke with — men and women alike — assumed it was a lifestyle decision.
Sure, I’d left a demanding executive role in a media company — and I had a new baby — but I wasn’t looking for so-called work-life balance.
My (female) business partner and I were very clear from the beginning that we wanted to build and grow a company with significant value.
To ensure that we were taken seriously, I rarely mentioned my newborn son in business meetings, and we both made other arrangements for the school run.
Seven years later, and the marketing agency we launched from my spare room has been acquired by an ASX-listed company. Yet, the stereotypes about female entrepreneurs remain stubbornly unchanged.
More often than not, it’s assumed female founders want to escape inflexible corporate working hours, or pursue a creative interest or passion. Their businesses are seen as a side-hustle that might earn them a few bucks.
And when women are running a company, it’s assumed they are less likely to have a growth mindset, that they are less driven by financial or other goals.
According to a BNP Paribas survey, women entrepreneurs are perceived as “pragmatic and good at listening” whereas men are seen as “ambitious and strategic”.
The assumption is that women are more risk-averse than men.
It is certainly true that female founders are less likely to seek capital investment, relying instead on slower organic growth.
But perhaps that’s because women find it much more difficult to obtain venture capital funding unless they are running a ‘gendered business’ — think makeup or retail.
Some female founders go to extraordinary lengths to get funding, including hiring men to front the process for them, while many others undoubtedly give up altogether.
To address the gap between male and female entrepreneurship we need to tackle the outdated — and frankly insulting — clichés about female founders.
While there is plenty of work to do on flexibility to better accommodate those with families, the fact is that unsatisfactory salaries in corporate jobs, where women’s’ pay lags 24% behind men, is the main reason women launch their own businesses, not the desire to work part-time hours.
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And it is patently untrue that female founders are neither ambitious nor strategic.
(I’d be happy to describe myself as ambitious. It’s quite possible to be both ambitious, ethical and empathetic all at the same time.)
To my mind, the myth of the swaggering, confident, risk-taking male entrepreneur is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We say it enough and everyone believes it is true.
Until we change the way we talk about female entrepreneurs — and until more women see other women successfully launch, scale and exit from businesses — we’re unlikely to make any real progress.
This is an edited version of an article first published by Women’s Agenda.