Sexism, self-doubt, role models: Welcome to the boy’s club

The startup world is a man’s world. Full stop.

Female founders account for less than 14 per cent of all founders in Berlin. In most cities it is less than 10 per cent.

She Started It, a documentary that follows five female tech entrepreneurs as they build their companies, shows the issues women face : securing investment, finding role models, pervasive self-doubt, blatant sexism.

Something Germany’s female founders are all too familiar with.

“The investor bent forward and looked my co-founder in the eyes and went like, ‘So what is it like to fight with her?’ Freya Oehya, co-founder of Spottster, a platform that lets users know when their favourite products drop in price, recalled.

This was the weirdest moment, she says. “I was like, a) I am present and b) Do you ask that to male founders, too? Because I’m certain that other co-founders fight at times.”

When Freya and her co-founder, Tobias Kempkensteffen started Spottster one of the first questions they faced was whether they were a couple.

“It was a potential business risk that everyone saw in us,” she explains. “We were always saying no, we are not a couple. We are just like two guys that actually want to start a company.”

Lea-Sophie Cramer, co-founder of Amorelie (German), an online sex shop, recalled a meeting with several potential male investors. At some point during the conversation the coffee ran out and the question arose of who would get fresh coffee.

“All of the investors’ eyes automatically moved to me,” she says. “This stereotypical way of thinking is rooted in people's minds.” Her co-founder, Sebastian Pollock, was unaware of the situation and was already out the door to go for a refill.

Female founders, it can be argued, are on the front lines as traditional gender roles are phased out. Their presence redefines narratives used to describe successful women, all while accepting realities and limitations that come tangled with a male-dominated startup ecosystem.

The need for role models

Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed, the film’s directors, want their documentary to inspire young women around the world, they said in an interview with the Heureka before the premiere in Berlin Tuesday.

With only four per cent of Fortune 500 companies run by women, according to a study by the Kauffman Foundation, getting girls into tech means showing them women in tech.

Cramer and Oehle agree. At the heart of the matter is a need for role models, Cramer says.

When a person thinks of successful business people they think of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, Oehle says. “There are hardly any self-made multi-million dollar females that stand alone.”

Constanze Buchheim founded her company, i-Potentialsa recruiting consultancy for the digital industry, in 2009. She thinks it will take at least an entire generation before the startup environment sees the number of women starting their own company increase. “It is really, really important for women to have the feeling they can be an entrepreneur.”

Taking credit where credit is due

In order to be successful in the boy’s club, it helps to enjoy male networks, the direct communication style and competitive atmosphere.

“This does not mean I have to leave behind my identity of a woman,” Buchheim says. “But I should enjoy speaking their language, because this then means I don’t have to change myself.”

It essentially boils down to how a woman talks about her results and achievements, and how she sells and brands herself and her expertise.

Buchheim describes women as perfectionists, who are more prone to doubt their abilities, whereas men don't have a problem learning while they are doing. Men have the confidence to fake it until they make it and reach their goals.

Dozens of psychological papers have looked into what is known as the imposter phenomenon among women: “Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women with imposter phenomenon believe they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

She Started It also looks at risk aversion and fear of failure among women as possible causes for underrepresentation in entrepreneurship.

“Becoming an entrepreneur is a decision. Often a life-changing one,” said Fielfalt (German) founder, Aimie-Sarah Carstensen. “In this case, I experience that women aren't as risk-taking and decisive as men.”

Furthermore, taking credit where credit is due becomes more difficult when trying to assess whether positive attention is based on ability, not gender.

Julia Kasper, founder of Holzgespuer (German), a startup that creates personalized, hand-crafted furniture, was once asked to give a presentation. The first thing that was said when she arrived was, “Good – we have a woman.”

“It was like, ‘Thank you?’ That’s why I came to Berlin?” she says.

Kasper, who is one of the only female founders in Koblenz, Germany, sometimes feels pushed into a frame when she is asked to speak on a panel or give a presentation.

“As an entrepreneur you need recognition and good PR to bring people on your website,” she says. “But then you have to really reflect for yourself was it the content you brought or simply the fact you are a woman?”

Buchheim, who had similar experiences, does not let it bother her. “I alway thought about if this was my topic and if it was my topic I would say yes,” regardless of whether she was just there to “fill the female quota.” It is about the results, Buchheim says.

Creating unicorns and drumming up interest with VCs

The documentary also touched on how women are more likely to start businesses that are smaller, with lower growth rates and revenues.

“Female entrepreneurs tend to create businesses with a higher social impact and reinvest in their communities a lot more,” the film directors shared, citing a study published in the Harvard Business Review.

Another possible reason? “Women decide less often to build the huge scaling units or business because they say, ‘I want to be successful, self-responsible… and I want to have kids,” Buchheim explains.

Several research articles that examine female motivation for entrepreneurship also support Buchheim’s assertion: “Women see entrepreneurship as a means of meeting simultaneously their own career needs and the needs of their children.”

Smaller businesses translates to less attention on the nitty-gritty details and a woman’s business acumen, and less interest from VCs, 96 per cent of which are male.

Buchheim, who runs a cash-flow business, feels that lack of interest in her business model is “because it is not scaling,” she says. “If we aren’t aiming to build unicorns it is hard to get a stage.”

“Is it a business? Yes,” she says, answering her own question. “Do I have the same challenges? Yes, but still no one cares because it is small."

While the documentary can't solve these problems, it is a step in the right direction to help bridge the gender gap in tech entrepreneurship and empower the next generation of female founders.

And in the mean time, the film's directors, who started touring with the film in late October, plan to continue screenings at events around the world.

Photo via She Started It

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