Women busi­ness own­ers find ways to deal with gen­der bias

Texarkana Gazette - - BUSINESS - By Joyce M. Rosen­berg

NEW YORK—It can be sub­tle, like fail­ing to make eye con­tact with a woman busi­ness owner but en­gag­ing in an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion with her male co-owner. Or more bla­tant, like ask­ing an owner who’s seek­ing in­vestor money if she plans to have chil­dren.

Many women busi­ness own­ers say they’ve en­coun­tered gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion from po­ten­tial in­vestors, cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees who don’t grasp the re­al­ity that a woman can be a CEO, trial at­tor­ney or own a tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Many women are taken aback at first and don’t know how to re­spond to com­ments or be­hav­ior they find in­sult­ing, in­tru­sive and de­mean­ing. But over time, they find strate­gies to deal with bias.

When Amanda Brad­ford speaks at tech­nol­ogy con­fer­ences and fo­rums, dis­cussing cod­ing and al­go­rithms, some men tell her af­ter­ward, “this is some­thing I didn’t ex­pect when you opened your mouth.” They as­sume that be­cause she’s a woman, she’s the mar­keter, not the in­ven­tor of The League, a dat­ing app.

When Brad­ford sought fund­ing for her San Fran­cisco-based com­pany, “I of­ten felt like I didn’t get the credit for hav­ing the tech­ni­cal ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says.

Women busi­ness own­ers are not im­mune from the gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion that is con­tin­u­ally in the news— even as it’s more and more likely a cus­tomer or po­ten­tial in­vestor will find them­selves speak­ing to a woman if they want to see the boss. The num­ber of women-owned busi­nesses in the U.S. has grown to more than 10 mil­lion from 5.4 mil­lion in 1997.

Su­san Duffy, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Women’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial Lead­er­ship at Bab­son Col­lege, says that while women own­ers are more vis­i­ble and ac­cepted than decades ago, “some­one still as­sumes that if you’re the CEO you’re the white guy in the suit or the white guy in the hoodie.”

Po­ten­tial cus­tomers or in­vestors of­ten as­sume that Gabby Slome and Alex Douzet, two of the co-founders of dog food man­u­fac­turer Ol­lie, are mar­ried. Out­siders can’t seem to get their minds around the fact that Slome, who’s mar­ried to some­one else, could be run­ning a busi­ness with­out her hus­band, or with­out him bankrolling her.

“They think, he must have funded me. They don’t un­der­stand that I’m do­ing this in­de­pen­dently of him,” says Slome, whose 2-yearold com­pany is based in Man­hat­tan.

Slome has learned to turn an un­com­fort­able mo­ment into a pitch about Douzet and her­self.

“I tell them, we met be­cause of shared busi­ness in­ter­ests, and our joint abil­i­ties and skill sets make us good busi­ness part­ners,” she says.

Duffy, who over­sees Bab­son’s men­tor­ing pro­grams for women en­trepreneurs, says gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and how to deal with it are fre­quently dis­cussed at pro­gram meet­ings.

“Have your an­tenna up so you know it when you see it and have two or three readyto-go be­hav­iors in your back pocket to man­age it in the mo­ment for the best out­come,” Duffy says.

Sally Strebel has no­ticed that when her male busi­ness part­ner leaves her side at meet­ings, “other men will ap­proach and ask me a ques­tion about my com­pany and then tell me how they are build­ing some­thing bet­ter and that I should watch out.” Strebel, co-founder of Pagely, a web­site host­ing com­pany based in Tuc­son, Ariz., re­al­izes they want to in­tim­i­date her.

She’s also been in meet­ings where she wasn’t given the chance to speak. For a while, she was silent. But as time went on, she re­al­ized that she has the right to speak.

“I have more power. I have a voice now. I can ac­tu­ally say, ‘that’s not OK,’” Strebel says.

Noushin Ketabi has no­ticed that when she and her hus­band and busi­ness part­ner Rob Terenzi meet with male ex­ec­u­tives, they speak to him and don’t make eye con­tact with her. They seem to per­ceive him as the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-maker in their cof­fee com­pany, Vega.

Ketabi re­sponds by act­ing as an equal co-owner of the Santa Bar­bara, Calif.-based firm, speak­ing knowl­edge­ably and au­thor­i­ta­tively. She also uses hu­mor to try to ease the awk­ward­ness.

Ju­lia Fowler con­fronted the po­ten­tial in­vestor who asked if she planned to have chil­dren.

“The ques­tion it­self was ex­tremely in­ap­pro­pri­ate and per­sonal that had noth­ing to do with the com­pany,” says Fowler, co-founder of Edited, a re­tail tech­nol­ogy com­pany with of­fices in New York, San Fran­cisco and Lon­don.

At first Fowler was taken aback. Then, at a sec­ond meet­ing, she raised the is­sue.

“I said to the part­ner who had asked, ‘I want to un­der­stand why this is im­por­tant to you.’ He didn’t have an ex­pla­na­tion,” Fowler says.

Fowler’s as­sertive­ness wasn’t a prob­lem: Edited got the money.

Michelle Kennedy has found po­ten­tial in­vestors don’t trust that she knows her prod­uct and the mar­ket for it. She did mar­ket re­search be­fore seek­ing in­vestor fund­ing for Peanut, an app that helps moth­ers con­nect with one an­other. But even as re­cently as 2016, po­ten­tial in­vestors would say, “I don’t know. I need to speak to my wife or my sec­re­tary, my sis­ter, my daugh­ter who will know bet­ter” than she does, Kennedy says.

Kennedy en­coun­ters less bias lately be­cause she can show rev­enue and earn­ings num­bers that prove her abil­ity to run a com­pany.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

■ Ol­lie co-founders Gabby Slome and Alex Douzet pose for a pic­ture at the man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity where their dog food is made Oct. 2 in Wood­bridge, N.J. Po­ten­tial cus­tomers or in­vestors of­ten as­sume that Slome and Douzet are mar­ried.

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