Why entrepreneurial ecosystems need women-centric spaces
By Olivia Barrow
When Amy and I met for our regular blog post interview right before we both left for the Holidays, we talked about a question that Amy got asked way too often.
“Why do you need women-centric spaces? Isn’t that counter to your goal of making the entrepreneurial ecosystem more inclusive? Shouldn’t you just send women to the “main” events?”
Amy wanted to answer that question by painting a picture of exactly what it means for a woman to exist in the “default” or “main” entrepreneurial spaces, which in reality, are male-centric spaces.
Amy reasoned that if the people asking this question truly understood what a day in the life of a woman entrepreneur looks like outside of women-centric spaces like the ones Doyenne creates, they would not ask this question.
“I’m going to unpack just a few of the layers of marginalization and disadvantage that a woman has to navigate in a male-dominated space,” Amy told me.
As a ghostwriter, I have a unique partnership with each of my clients. Some clients take my draft and publish it with no changes at all. Others make a few more edits. Amy liked to think of my version as her first draft, and it was not unusual for her to take a piece from 1,500 words to 3,000, because she had so many stories to share. I would then put on my ruthless editor cap and work to trim it down to under 2,000 words.
This post won’t benefit from that collaborative process, but I believe what Amy shared with me in the interview was powerful, as always, and I’ve done my best to share it in a way that stays true to Amy’s brilliant message.
What a woman experiences in a male-dominated entrepreneurial ecosystem
The way a woman experiences a male-dominated space is different from the way a man experiences it. It’s very hard to find your footing as a woman in those spaces. Women have to work harder than men to get the same level of support, make the same connections, and earn the same respect as men, and that’s NOT because women are incompetent, it’s because those spaces are built in a certain way. Those spaces are built with men as the default.
The following are just some of the things women experience in these spaces.
Trying to win Monopoly when men are the players, and you’re just property
If a woman primarily shows up to the “main” or supposedly “co-ed” entrepreneurial events in her community, then she is operating in spaces that are dominated by masculine culture. These spaces are status-oriented, full of little games to prove who is the alpha dog.
A male entrepreneur once pulled Amy aside at the end of a Doyenne strategy retreat to tell her that he’d been much more productive at the Doyenne event than at any other entrepreneurial event he had attended because there was no “penis-measuring contest.”
And no, he didn’t mean that literally: He was referring to the low-grade competition that is always present in a masculine-oriented space. When men engage in these status games, they often see women as pawns they can manipulate to improve their status, but they never view women as competitors. How could they? In their mind, women don’t even have the right equipment. And the minute a woman tries to play the game by men’s rules, she gets laughed at or called a bitch. She gets socially punished for her actions.
Balancing career and parenthood in a space where being a caregiver is seen as “other”
When you have a life partner who is the primary caregiver for your children and manager of your household, you have way more mental and emotional energy available for your work than someone who does not have that. You don’t have a to-do list constantly running in your head of household chores and family-related errands and worries. It’s much more natural to compartmentalize your family from your work.
When a woman who serves as both the CEO of her venture and primary caregiver for her children enters a male-dominated space, the reality is she is entering a space where it is unusual to be a caregiver. She feels pressure to fit in, so anything on her mind that has to do with caregiving becomes something she needs to hide. Just left your newborn at home for the first time? Don’t you dare acknowledge the swirl of emotions you’re experiencing; they’ll make you look weak. Need to pump breastmilk? God forbid anyone sees you when you sneak off to the pumping closet or, more likely, cramped bathroom stall.
Men may talk about their kids at a work event, but they’re not trying to navigate a world with the weight of being a caregiver on their back. So in a male-dominated event, kids/family obligations get disappeared—but that has a far more profound impact on the women than the men.
It’s also no surprise that women often see a huge boost to their careers when their partners serve as the primary caregiver. Last fall, Ashley Powell, a Madison-based sales powerhouse and longtime Doyenne supporter, shared a glimpse into her story on LinkedIn, which illustrates the night-and-day difference between moving through the world as a caregiver versus not:
“In 2016, my husband became a stay-at-home Dad because my income was enough to support our family,” she wrote. “And my career was bolstered because of the immense support I got at home. I didn't have to be called out of meetings because of a sick kiddo. I didn't have to take time off for Doctor's appointments. I could attend breakfast meetings and cocktail hours because there was someone taking care of that for our family.”
Finding your way when your role models don’t look like you
Nine times out of 10, the speakers, the panelists, the honorees—anyone highlighted at an entrepreneurial event—are men, and they frame the event from a masculine perspective. And if a woman is on stage, there’s a 99.9% chance that the only topic she will be asked to share expertise on is balancing work and family, no matter how much expertise she has as a CEO, financial leader, inventor, scientist, visionary, futurist, etc.
No matter how strong a woman’s resolve, the message she takes home from those events is that she is not meant to be a CEO, and that her perspective as a woman is not valuable in the world.
Networking without “giving the wrong signals”
A key factor in success in raising money for your venture is knowing the right people — the people with money. And the people with money are men. That doesn’t mean any male entrepreneur automatically starts out with a high-powered network, although some do, but it does mean that getting into that network is easier for them because people are automatically more inclined to make connections for people who look like them.
Without automatic access into the network of investors, women have to rely on meeting investors at networking events. But when a woman entrepreneur works the room at a networking event, she is not only managing the challenge of making connections with the right people, she has to do that without “giving the wrong signals” or “being too friendly,” lest a man interprets her attention and enthusiasm as romantic interest.
In many cases, no matter what a woman says or does, men at an event will still hit on her, make comments about her physical appearance, or make some kind of sexual advance toward her.
And if something does happen, and she speaks up about it, she instantly gets blamed or gaslighted. She’s made to feel like a crazy person. If a woman does anything that challenges male ego and power, she faces consequences. Soon, she learns that it’s better to stay quiet and find ways to protect herself. So now, she has to navigate finding her voice, claiming her power, and doing it all without naming the bullshit going on.
Pitching your venture when investors only want to ask you about failure
Crafting and delivering a compelling pitch for a new venture is extremely difficult for anyone. You have to paint a picture in the audience’s mind of how incredibly successful your venture could be. You have to present the market as being so rich with opportunity that the investors would be stupid not to invest in you.
Now, imagine doing that when the only thing investors ask you about is failure. When men pitch their ventures, they field questions from the audience about how they will capture market share, how they will seize the incredible opportunity, how they will bring home a big win. When women pitch, they get asked how they will prevent one calamity after another. How will you manage this risk? How will you prevent this bad thing from happening?
The starting assumption most investors bring to a pitch is that male founders are an opportunity, and female founders are a liability. So for a woman to successfully pitch her venture, she has to deflect and redirect most of the questions she gets asked in order to answer the questions a man in her place would have been asked — questions that give her a chance to sell the opportunity, and not just focus on the risk.
And she has to do it all without bruising the egos of the men in the room.
Finding a mentor who won’t challenge your right to be an entrepreneur
Good mentorship is absolutely essential to building a successful venture. But for women, their first, second, and often third experiences with mentors may be far more damaging than helpful. One woman Amy coached talked about how she had to spend an hour proving to a mentor that her graduate degree in chemistry gave her the appropriate expertise to make skincare products.
Another woman went to a mentoring agency and was hit on by two men who were supposed to be mentoring her, and they were many years older than her.
And when a woman finds a mentor who doesn’t see her only as a sexual conquest or a foolish dreamer, she still often gets inappropriate advice. She gets told that all she needs to do is speak up a bit, be more aggressive. Essentially, be a man. But we know that when women model their behavior after men, they don’t get the same results.
Women-centric spaces give women—and men—a break from the garbage
For the men who don’t understand why the world needs women-centric spaces, this is what Amy wanted them to understand.
It’s not just one thing. Women need a space free of a mountain of layers of discrimination and marginalization. And the subjects Amy and I touched on in that conversation didn’t even begin to address what it’s like to be a woman of color in those spaces, or how the ever-present threat of violence against women could affect a woman in these spaces. In the back of a woman’s mind, there may be any number of considerations when attending an event: How late does it go? Will I be safe walking back to my car? If I go out for drinks with these investors, will their interest in my venture turn into sexual advances when they get drunk? Will my violent spouse at home get jealous of me spending time with male investors?
For a woman of color, take all of the challenges Amy outlined and multiply them by 10 when you add the challenge and trauma of navigating their racial identity.
Doyenne spaces, and other women-centric spaces, give women a break from all of these challenges, and they provide the resources that women are not getting in male-dominated spaces.
Being in women-centric spaces also equips women to see what’s so wrong in these male-dominated spaces. It helps them realize it’s not just them. They’re not broken, the ecosystem is broken. After spending time in women-centric spaces, women can go back to the male-dominated spaces that they need to occupy in order to build their network, and they have skills, confidence, and clarity about their venture, which helps them claim more power and demand the support they need. But they are still not standing on equal footing with the men in those events.
We’re all asking the wrong question
Even after presenting a glimpse into the experiences a woman might have at just one entrepreneurial event, Amy still had to defend Doyenne’s right to exist. People would still ask, “but in the longterm, do you think women-focused spaces will need to exist?”
I still get a terrible shiver every time I read Amy’s answer in my notes:
“This question is asinine. Women-centric spaces will need to exist until the power is equally divided. When congress is 50-50. When venture capitalists are 50-50. When Fortune 500 CEOs are 50-50. Then we can talk about not needing women-centric spaces. But I don’t see that happening in my lifetime or my daughter’s.”
“In the future, what won’t exist anymore are the male-dominated spaces that hold all the power, where only men can truly get the resources they need,” Amy said.
If you’re a man, and you truly want to be in spaces that are co-ed/inclusive/equally beneficial for men and women, then you’re going to have to change the culture of your spaces, Amy said. It’s not just about getting more women to show up to your spaces.
And if you need a hint about what needs to change in your spaces? Start by observing the culture of women’s spaces.
The question of why do women-centric spaces exist is the wrong question. Instead, we should all be asking, “What can we learn from women-centric spaces that we can apply to ALL of the places we reside, both personally and professionally?”