So, how does it feel to be a woman working in digital innovation? This question has come up again and again since the inception of our company. The truth is, we’ve never defined ourselves as women entrepreneurs. Why should we begin characterizing our efforts and accomplishments as the summation of one genre?
My founding partner and I both have a passion for innovation that naturally led us to start our company. We never conceived of it as our heroic assault on some macho stronghold. All the same, we do concede that we’ve helped break up the monotony in this little enclave.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were a visible minority: two women under the age of 30. But what we hadn’t expected at the onset of our venture was the sheer force and persistence of a pernicious sexism, all buried under the guise of goodwill and a parade of clichés.
In the face of the unsolicited remarks given to us along the way, we’ve learned to circumvent, ignore, or struggle as needed. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for contributing to our education. You can stop now. Or you could, but then again, the temptation to deliver these pearls is clearly overwhelming. A few selected extracts:
“You’re two young ladies, far from being neutral, this is actually a point of vigilance”
Followed by: “If I hired you for this job, I would have a hard time justifying this choice to my colleagues.” We heard this in 2014. Not 1914, but 2014. Inspired, I serenely responded: “You know, the lack of neutrality is extremely practical. It quickly segregates the pigs”.
Good old-fashioned views opposing skill and seduction, and the notion that relationships between men and women are necessarily rife with sexual tension, keep women on the sidelines. This episode clearly identified the archenemy of women in entrepreneurship: stereotypes and their derivatives in the world of business.
People continue to explain away the underrepresentation of women in key sectors of the economy as a function of their nature: allergic to risk, lacking confidence, and uncomfortable with personal or economic success. Women have mental frailties incompatible with creating an enterprise. Finally, since women are “what they are” it is up to each one “to take it upon herself” and start a business — presumably overcoming whatever makes a woman what she usually is.
Ladies, become entrepreneurs! It’s up to you! The powerful rhetoric of self-accomplishment is very convenient. It is so much easier to lay the problem on women themselves, rather than address issues like access to finance or the modes of supplier selection by large firms.
“So you’re actually a comm agency right?”
Five by Five creates valuable encounters between two worlds: large corporations and startups. Yet, because of perceived gender roles, somehow our model is often relegated and banished to the relational dimension, even while we’re actually putting methodologies and new processes in place.
Prejudice is tough. Women are allowed to reign primarily over the realms of the emotional and the relational, while men are established firmly on the side of rationality and performance. The gender bias is palpable everywhere — including the narrative surrounding the progress of women in the workplace. We observe, with some amusement, the sudden boom of articles on “women’s networks” which has become a wellspring of material for journalists.
These images keep us locked into supporting roles (human resources, communications) rather than production (operations, development), creating walls that limit the horizontal mobility of women from one sector to another. These walls are largely responsible for the underrepresentation of women in innovation and at the helm of new companies in the digital sector. To elaborate a bit on the image of the glass ceiling — a ceiling can’t stand without support. Take down the walls that prevent women from moving horizontally and it won’t be long before the ceiling comes down as well.
“Good job, girls!”
Aggravated that no one had listened to us from the beginning of a meeting, my partner had ended up detailing our journey as a company and unpacking all the necessary labels. Our interlocutor, seemingly astonished, burst out in a sudden “Good job, girls!”
Having been taken by surprise by “us girls”, the moment was found deserving of emphasis in the form of this benevolent remark — all at once representing a stereotype and also justifying it.
Such comments remain commonplace because instead of exploring the characteristics of each entrepreneur, regardless of sex, there seems to be a desire to find, at all costs, distinctive attributes in the undertakings of women that will allow them to be classified together in one homogenous group: that of the famous “woman entrepreneur”. We inevitably find what we’re looking for. Women therefore have to have a “different” management style than men. More authentic, participative, empathic…
We need to stop challenging sexism piecemeal and firmly say: there is no such thing as a woman entrepreneur. There are only men and women who undertake entrepreneurship. To think that creating a special category protects the interests of women is dangerous, especially because it takes place in a warm environment that feigns respect for differences, all the while hiding the baggage that these so-called differences imply.
Let us therefore stop internalizing stereotypes of what we are as women and above all, stop looking for imagined female attributes to justify our worth as entrepreneurs. These are precisely the traits that have long been established and that have kept us apart from the world of business. It would be a fiction, and no less confining, to repackage them as our new means of progressing in the digital sector.