The Toll Microaggressions Take on Women Entrepreneurs

For over a decade, companies founded by women have received less than 3 percent of annual venture capital investment in this country—and Black and indigenous women and people of color get an even tinier slice. To emerge from the pandemic’s economic crisis, women’s businesses need to be prioritized.

The Toll Microaggressions Take on Women Entrepreneurs
At the TEDxBayArea Global Women Entrepreneurs event in 2012. (Tatyana Kanzaveli / Flickr)

The pandemic has rocked the working lives of nearly all women, with reduced wages, lost jobs, and an untenable childcare burden. Women entrepreneurs, too, have felt the effects.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that COVID-19 has taken a heavier economic toll on women-owned small businesses than those owned by men, and women’s firms anticipate a slower, weaker recovery. Venture capital investments in women-founded start-ups appear to have slowed as well, according to research from data company PitchBook, making an already-troubling funding picture even darker.

For more than a decade, companies founded by women have received less than 3 percent of annual venture capital investment in this country. Women who are Black, indigenous and people of color get an even tinier slice. In order to emerge from the pandemic’s economic crisis, women’s businesses need to be prioritized.

I’ve spent the last four years researching entrepreneurship’s gender gap—the fact that women own fewer companies than men, and overall those businesses have access to significantly less start-up capital, make a lot less revenue, and employ far fewer people. This gender gap affects us all, resulting in fewer jobs and less innovation.

I interviewed more than 100 women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, more than half of them BIPOC, in multiple industries and across the country. They told me that several measures—from better funding opportunities to more mentors and role models—would help their companies grow. And they repeatedly pointed to microaggressions, the toll they take, and the urgency needed to banish them.   

The Toll Microaggressions Take on Women Entrepreneurs
In Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back, journalist and professor Susanne Althoff investigates the obstacles women and nonbinary entrepreneurs—especially those of color—face when launching, funding, and growing their companies.

Excerpt from Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back, available October 27.

“Having a male cofounder, you can see how people treat you differently just because you’re a woman,” says Rebecca Liebman, the CEO of LearnLux, which provides online education and coaching in personal finance to companies’ employees. She and her brother Michael cofounded the Boston-based company in 2015 when she was 22 and he was 19. Since then, they’ve raised $2 million from investors such as Ashton Kutcher’s fund Sound Ventures and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

“I think when I meet someone, they automatically assume I’m the secretary,” Liebman says. “If you meet a young man, you just assume that he’s the founder, but if you meet a young woman, you’re like, ‘Oh, how long have you been with the company?’ And it’s like, ‘I started it.’”


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Liebman notices that people even use different words with her. “I can be in a meeting with Michael or without, I’ll pitch something, and someone might say, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ And Michael will be like, ‘You would just never say it’s cute to run a multimillion-dollar venture company to a 20-year-old man.’ But it’s fine to say it to a woman. Why? There’s just wording that people use. There’s the overt sexism, but then there’s also just the subtle sexism that’s almost harder to solve, because a lot of people are just unaware. They don’t know what they’re saying.”

Allison Clift-Jennings has also experienced the ways gender influences an entrepreneur’s treatment. The Reno, Nevada–based serial entrepreneur—she’s either founded or helped grow eight start-ups—is transgender. After transitioning in 2016, Clift-Jennings came to realize how her years of being viewed as a white, heterosexual, cisgender man brought unearned advantages.

“Most males experience this in day-to-day life: It’s the assumption that you know what you’re talking about and have the experience,” she says. “It’s the assumption that you are not a sex object, but you’re a walking, cognizant human being. It’s the assumption that you have a career and you’re self-made and you’re a rugged individualist. We call it ‘mankind,’ for God’s sake. All these sorts of things tend to be implied towards men. The truth is that, for much of my life being perceived as male, and in the early days assuming I was male, I did not even understand that not everybody gets that benefit. When I started to experience being perceived as female, some of these things were not automatically given to me. It was shocking.”

Microaggressions is the term used to describe the steady stream of offhand put-downs, belittling comments, and other slights directed at members of marginalized groups. While any single incident might seem insignificant, encounter enough of them and you’re overwhelmed.

“They’re of enormous importance in derailing people or hurting them or keeping them awake at night,” says Mary Rowe, an economist and researcher who teaches at MIT.

After interviewing more than 100 women and nonbinary entrepreneurs, I learned that microaggressions create a significant hurdle in their entrepreneurial path, especially when coupled with other obstacles, such as a lack of start-up funding (women-led businesses, for example, receive less than 3 percent of venture capital investment in this country).

The Toll Microaggressions Take on Women Entrepreneurs
At the TEDxBayArea Global Women Entrepreneurs event in 2012. (Tatyana Kanzaveli / Flickr)

Women at work are nearly twice as likely as men to experience four or more kinds of microaggressions, according to a 2019 report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. And other aspects of a woman’s identity can intensify the experience.

“Black women,” the researchers write, “are the most likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to prove their competence. Lesbian women, bisexual women, and women with disabilities are far more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks about themselves or others like them.”

Stephanie Lampkin, the founder and CEO of Bay Area–based Blendoor, a software tool that helps companies scrub unconscious bias from their hiring practices, says the extra hurdle of being part of more than one underrepresented group is something that’s too often overlooked: “I think, by nature of the culture of this country, talking about gender is a lot easier than talking about race.”

She points to the fact that while all women entrepreneurs struggle to raise venture capital, white women still end up collecting significantly more than Black women and other women of color. These funding disparities exist, Lampkin says, “even though Black women are one of the fastest-growing demographics of entrepreneurs in the United States—probably by nature of the fact that they’re not getting respected in corporate America. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and I don’t think enough attention has been paid to it.”

While working on her doctorate in public health at Harvard, Tariana V. Little built an app called FooFii that helps people who need food find resources. Little, who finished her degree in 2020, was inspired by her own family’s experience with food insecurity. This is her second company. The first is the Boston–based media agency EmVision Productions, which she cofounded with her husband in 2013.

Little tells me their identities—he’s German American and she has Dominican, German, and Mexican heritage—often lead people to assume he’s leading the operation, even though she’s the CEO.

“It can be difficult because here’s this tall white male, and that is the stereotype of a business owner, and so I feel like I have to assert myself more, justify more who I am and what my role is.”

Little has also learned, for her own sanity, to let it slide sometimes. “If I were to intervene every time, it would be really taxing and annoying,” she says. “I had to learn how to prioritize when to call it out and when to not. It’s unfortunate that women have to be in this predicament.”

Rowe, the MIT researcher, says that all of us practicing microaffirmations can combat the effects of microaggressions.

There are many ways to do this:

  • Offer congratulations when someone succeeds and be ready to listen when someone fails.
  • Broadcast someone’s good work and make sure they get credit for it.
  • Give someone space to talk and prevent interruptions.
  • Extend to someone an opportunity that would ordinarily be out of reach.

You do these things consistently, a little here and a little there, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly. Rowe says the person receiving the microaffirmation may feel more confident and perform better. And if one person in a group uses microaffirmations, those around them are likely to copy the practice.

Rowe says we can also build a more inclusive climate by mobilizing bystanders. In other words, people who witness inappropriate behavior need to speak up and take action. Rowe acknowledges that a new entrepreneur eager for a first investment might have a difficult time calling out an investor. So in that case the investor’s peers need to mobilize.

“The best constraints on the bad behavior of powerful people are other powerful people,” Rowe says. “The best teachers of good behavior to powerful people in any context are other powerful people.”

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About

Susanne Althoff is the author of Launching While Female Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back (Beacon Press, October 27). She’s a journalist and an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston. Connect with her on Twitter @SusanneAlthoff and at susannealthoff.com.