Support women entrepreneurs by breaking the mould

9 Mar 2020

Image: © serikbaib/

The habits and roles we know women take up in society are incompatible with the model of an entrepreneur, so let’s start building a new model, writes Elaine Burke.

I had the pleasure of being part of a panel discussion at University College Dublin (UCD) last week for International Women’s Day. The first question put to each of us by Prof Orla Feely, UCD’s vice-president of research, innovation and impact, was if we had ourselves experienced gender discrimination in our careers. I couldn’t help but remark on how those of us who have not often refer to ourselves as “lucky”, as if this form of discrimination is so expected that to have avoided it is to be blessed in some way.

But we shouldn’t count ourselves lucky for experiencing a basic level of decency in society. Not experiencing discrimination should be our default expectation.

Dr Susan Leavy, another panellist at the event, was not one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Currently an assistant professor at the School of Information and Communication in UCD, with research interests in AI and digital policy, Leavy’s professional background was in the world of financial services. The stories she told as the sole woman working among all-male investment banking teams saw my face stick in the shape of the grimacing emoji – and these were just the stories she felt appropriate to share in a public forum.

I was glad that Leavy painted this picture of the world of finance and investment, as it provided helpful context for my attempt to explain the gender gap in entrepreneurship.

‘I don’t believe that women need fixing when it’s the system that’s broken’

The stats for investment in and from women remain abysmal. Many reported figures lament single-digit percentages.

For example, in 2019, venture capital investment in all-female founding teams hit an all-time high of $3.3bn in the US. That equates to a measly 2.8pc of the total capital invested across the entire US start-up ecosystem, according to PitchBook data. And when it comes to those who make the financial decisions, you’d be hard pushed to find a figure on women in VC or investment banking that breaches the 20pc mark.

This funding gap exists in research, too. Dr Marion Boland, head of research policy at Science Foundation Ireland, noted at the UCD event how, in funding applications, women tend not to ask for the highest available investment. This same issue has been pointed out by Enterprise Ireland when women entrepreneurs apply for a funding call. If the fund ranges from €50,000 to €100,000, chances are the women will apply for the low-end value and the men will apply for the top-end.

But that’s not to say what is too often said of women entrepreneurs in various coded ways. I’m not of the mind that this is the fault of women. And I don’t believe they need fixing when it’s the system that’s broken.

I share the recorded habits of women applying for funding because I believe knowledge is power. If you know this and it comes to mind when you’re filling out that next application, maybe it will spur you on to go for gold instead of settling for silver. We all need a little cheerleader sometimes to encourage us to reach for the stars, and women more often than men will suffer from imposter syndrome. When we can recognise the shape of the structures holding us back, I believe we can better overcome those hurdles.

There’s no harm in asking for more. This is a mindset I think we can change with knowledge, advice and encouragement. But it’s not an opportunity to join the chorus of advisors who urge women entrepreneurs to be more like their male counterparts to succeed.

Going back to Leavy’s anecdotes, it’s these men that women founders will often have to pitch to when they are seeking investment. Not only is it a male-dominated world, it’s one dominated by a severely toxic brand of masculinity. Not all men are sexist but an awful lot of male chauvinism is in control of the world’s wealth. Faced with pitching these men for investment, many women in business have found themselves dismissed and misunderstood.

Pattern matching contributes to this problem. If you’re going to trust someone with your investment, you want to see something of yourself reflected in that person in order to form that trust. That might be as brazen as investing in people just like you: a white, wealthy American man. Or it might be more insidious in that you look for someone who fits your model of the ideal entrepreneur.

All too often, the concept of the entrepreneur is incompatible with the common societal role for women. The entrepreneur is a hardworking hustler, working 24/7 and sacrificing everything else to do so. In a world where women do the majority of the unpaid and emotional labour in society, it’s practically impossible for them to fit that particular mould. This is why we need to smash it and build something better with the pieces.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic