I agonised for days about writing this article. As I debated whether I should put my thoughts into words, I felt myself becoming increasingly angry and uncomfortable. This was clearly a sign – I had something to say.
The main issue feeding my reluctance to write this piece was my concern about what people would say when they read it. I knew there would be the inevitable feedback: ‘She is just bitter’. ‘She is a man-hater’. ‘She is being a victim and unrealistic’. And, of course, the old favourite of misogynists everywhere: ‘She’s a b!tch!’. In addition to my concern regarding what people would say about me, my hesitation also stemmed from the fact that I’m the CEO of Peeplcoach. How might my words impact our business?
Despite these concerns, I shared my thoughts about this article with my team and without hesitation, they all said, ‘Go for it!’.
Let’s get a couple of things out in the open straight away. Personally, I do not believe I am any of the words I quoted above. I can be opinionated, I get frustrated, and I am direct and forthright when I need to be. But another fact about me is that I LOVE men. Especially 50+ year-old bald men like my husband. My two business partners are men over fifty. The majority of those who have invested in me and Peeplcoach – to the tune of approximately $3 million – are men. And perhaps most importantly, the spark for this article came from a white man.
As a fifty-something Australian-born Chinese woman, I was raised in an environment of conscious and unconscious racism, discrimination and bias. Because of this, I am resilient. I’ve had to be. However, this resilience can, paradoxically, sometimes blind me to examples of prejudice. Perhaps I’ve become so accustomed to it that it doesn’t raise my hackles when directed at me, which could be why it took a male colleague to point out what was right in front of me.
This whole thing started with the notification from the Telstra Business Awards. Peeplcoach was a State Finalist for the Accelerating Women category, and we were informed that we were not the State Winner. (Our fellow finalists are all doing incredible work, and the Victorian State Winner Empowered Women in Tradesabsolutely deserve this title.) I forwarded this email to the team to let them know that we did not win, and then I moved on to working my way through my to-do list for the day.
It was not until later in the day when I started receiving messages from my team, that I was prompted to relook at the email.
‘If only we had more white guys hugging or going bald in tuxedos!’.
‘When you believe you’ve reached a level of success as a women-led organisation, but white men are still set as your aspirational and inspirational goals’.
What did my team see that I didn’t?
These are the two images and the accompanying ‘encouragement’ that were in the email. An email sent to an organisation that was a finalist in the Accelerating Women category – women being the operative word there!
Look, I’m not saying that the organisations and the individual men depicted in these images aren’t great leaders or don’t deserve to be recognised. However, the choice of imagery to celebrate women-focused organisations is a little questionable. I’ll leave it to you to decide if these images are inspiring and whether they represent what great businesses and leadership teams look like or how they should present in order to be successful.
This email and my team’s reactions got me thinking.
Every morning, I read the business news from a variety of sources. This morning, I was hit with this headline when it popped up on Startup Daily.
‘Female-founded’. That’s what they led with. I’m not going to debate what happened to Immediation. That is not the point. It was those two hyphenated words that triggered me!
Why lead with this? What is the implication conveyed by the headline? Do we see this sort of language used about a male-founded organisation? Take FTX, for example, where tens of millions of dollars have been lost. At no point did a headline include the words ‘male-founded’ or ‘male-led’. Despite the fact that more than 80% of businesses are founded, led, managed or chaired by men, I have never seen the headline ‘Male-led company X now in liquidation because …’ Have you? So why the need to mention that Immediation was founded by women?
The headline has since been amended to remove the loaded term, so presumably, I’m not the only one to have taken issue with it.
Obviously, I don’t have an issue with the descriptor ‘female-founded’ or ‘female-led’, so long as the equivalent descriptors are used for male-founded and male-led organisations throughout the media (consistency, anyone?). I’ve had a similar debate when a woman’s family or married status – for example, ‘single mother of three’, or ‘working mum’ – are often used when describing a female leader. Not long ago, the Sunday Times only included women in its list of ‘childless politicians’. I’m proud and happy for people to know that I am a mother of two sons and a working parent and that Peeplcoach is a woman-founded and woman-led organisation. But please, can’t we also include such descriptors for men when it’s appropriate? I’d love to see, just once, an introduction along the lines of ‘John, single father of five’ or ‘George, unmarried with no children’.
Following that headline came another, from SmartCompany – ‘Nine Aussie startups that raised $40.5 million this week’. Having been on the capital-seeking journey myself, I know that all these businesses would have dedicated significant effort to raise these funds. So, I clicked on the link.
Firstly, let’s get a critical fact out of the way. We know that less than 3% of funds go to female-founded businesses. This is a fact. Embarrassing and pathetic, yet factual.
Here is the summary of how the $40.5 million was allocated, from largest portion to smallest.
- $11 million to SunDrive – Co-Founders Vince Allen and David Hu
- $9.5 million to Mutinex – Founders Matt Farrugia and Henry Innis
- $9 million to Firmable – Founders Leigh Jasper, Paul Perrett and Karthik Venkatasubramanian
- $4.4 million to Good Earth Dairy – Co-Founders Stephen Geppert and Marcel Steingiesser
- $3 million to AQC – Co-Founders Tom Stace and Arkady Federov
- $1.75 million to Happly – Founders Andrew Weinman and Jeremy Rosen
- $1.2 million to Litecard – Founder Brian Pham
- $523, 870 to Cyclion – Founders Philip Major and Stephen Burns
- $131,440 to Heartful – Founder Jen Clark
Eight of the nine businesses funded were male-founded. More than half were funded by male-led VCs and other investors. Two were financed through crowdfunding, one of which was Heartful, the first and only female-founded startup on this list. Heartful founder Jen Clark raised $131,440, with more than 130 private investors investing. That’s just over $1,000 per person. Really? Is this how we support women founders – in $1,000 increments?
The statistics tell us that it is likely that two-thirds of these companies will fail within the next five years. I wonder if any headlines will read ‘Male-founded and funded business fails’ when they do?
Starting and growing a business is hard! Failure or success is dependent on so many things, most of which have nothing to do with such factors as race, gender or age. Success hinges on your idea, persistence, hard work, resilience and single-mindedness. I’m not implying that a business will succeed or fail based on its founder’s gender. That’s ridiculous! These articles, however, confirm an ongoing historical bias that ensures male-founded and led businesses will have access to more support and resources, which, more often than not, will result in better outcomes. Male-led businesses are still the norm, and they are still held up as the inspiration for all businesses.
How will anything change if this is what we read every day? How will anything change if men or male-led organisations are always the quintessential model of success?
After all this, I have a couple of questions I’d like answered.
To the marketing team at Telstra – What were you thinking? What message were you trying to send to me, and to all other women-led businesses trying to change the world and make an impact?
To the media – What message are you consciously or unconsciously promoting to existing and emerging businesses?
To all the VCs – When will you stop talking about the issue of funding equity and start putting your money where your mouths are – in female-founded organisations?
To everyone else – Why do we continue to let these biases stand unchallenged?