When I launched a business almost everyone I spoke to – men and women –assumed it was 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; 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, but 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 to pursue a creative interest or passion. A side hustle that might earn them a few bucks.
And when women are running a company it’s assumed that 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, and it is certainly true that female founders are less likely to seek capital investment, relying instead on slower organic growth.
But perhaps that’s also because women find it much more difficult to obtain venture capital funding unless you are running a ‘gendered business’ (think makeup, 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To address the gap between male and female entrepreneurship we need to tackle the outdated – and frankly insulting – clichés about female founders.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 womens’ pay lags 24% behind men is the main reason women launch their own businesses – not the desire to work part-time hours.
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.