The Last Thing We Need Are Companies Specifically Designed To Exclude Women

Version of this article appeared on Junkee – 4/11/2016

The day before Junkee broke the story of plans to start a male-only co-working space in Brisbane, I had written a Facebook post expressing my frustration about being a woman in the start-up world. It went pretty much as follows:

Friday night: Go to a business awards night (where every award winner is a man) and am seated next to a total douche who keeps touching my arms, shoulder and leg when he speaks to me. Discover that Mr D  actually has a new baby at home and, thus, presumable partner that he never mentioned.

Monday morning: Go into the office and am told that aforementioned douche and his all-male team are moving in until January. Aaaand because they need extra space, we have been moved to another location. Without being asked or consulted, I might add. Up until about a week ago we have been the only woman-led start up working out of this space. When I challenge the decision and ask why it happened, I am told that it is because ‘I am nice’.

While this situation mostly focuses on this particular douche, it speaks to much bigger issues. It is so fucking hard being a woman in the start-up space sometimes.

I am always outnumbered. I am tired of having to fight for space. I am tired of being the only woman on a panel or in a room. I am tired of having to explain WHY this is a problem. I am tired of having to constantly worry about how to approach these issues in a way that gets my point across but is also not too threatening/aggressive/argumentative/bossy – and potentially harmful to my business. I am tired of having to figure out if a man is asking to have coffee with me because he wants to do business or because he wants to have sex.

You get it – I am tired. After posting this on Facebook on Tuesday, I received so many messages and emails – mainly from women also in the start-up space – saying ‘Thank you – I am tired too’. So I am sharing this because I know a lot of other women are tired as well.

To give you some background, I run a Brisbane-based startup called Words With Heart. It’s a sustainable print and stationery company that funds education projects for women and girls. I launched the social enterprise on my own almost two years ago and now have a team of five talented women working alongside me. We count Macquarie Group, ING Direct and Hudson as clients, and we partner with some of Australia’s leading NGOs empowering women and girls in CARE Australia, One Girl and The Global Women’s Project.  I’m proud of the success we’ve had so far but, at times, finding the energy to keep going in this male-dominated sphere is incredibly hard.

Basically, the start-up ecosystem is well and truly driven by testosterone. 75 per cent of start-ups in Australia are founded by men, and when you get into the big leagues, only 4 per cent of Australian high growth technology start-up founders are women. Far and away, the vast majority of investors are dudes, and so perhaps it is unsurprising to learn that less than 15 per cent of female founders are successful in seeking venture capital. Spotting another woman at a networking event amidst a sea of suits is often the easiest game of ‘Where’s Wendy’ you can imagine. (Case in point – see the image above taken by a colleague just last night). And, as was the case at that fateful awards evening, it’s not unusual to be the only woman at a table.

One of the (many) problems with all-male work environments is that they perpetuate the gender discrimination that already exists. When women are not visible in a start-up space – to the point that they are actually barred from entry – they are not viewed as equal peers. It reinforces the existing entrepreneur stereotypes of the bold [white, straight] male risk taker – the likes of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates. It subconsciously implies the false notion that women don’t have the skills – or to quote Donald Trump – the stamina to be leaders. When you’re quoting Donald Trump, you know things are bad, right?! White male privilege becomes even more entrenched in the status quo. The already predominately male investors connect directly with the already predominately male start-ups. The work being done to enable women founders to be seen and to break down the barriers in access to capital, media coverage and recognition completely fall away.

I can only really see a male-only co-working space contributing to the predatory, hyper-masculine and toxic behaviour that already exists. For the record, it’s this kind of male entitlement that causes violence against women, not depression or a lack of male-only spaces.

Just about every female founder I know has a story, if not multiple stories, of sexual harassment. The senior executive that commented ‘Don’t you have a sexy voice!’ following the completion of a pitch. The venture capitalist that set up a meeting with a friend over Linked In, only to greet her with a lingering hug. The developer that sent another friend lewd texts and photos. The frat-house like culture of male saturated tech start-ups is well documented, and it frightens me to think how that might escalate if women are intentionally removed from that environment altogether. In reality, an all-male co-working space and the businesses it hosts are going to have interactions with women at some point. And it seems unlikely that there’ll be accommodations made for any solid sexual harassment training alongside the gym, physiotherapist and barber shop.

But perhaps the most distressing thing about the gender gap in the start-up space that is sitting with me right now is that it’s difficult for us as women to talk about. I was nervous to write this article, I am nervous about the response to it, and I genuinely worry that it will affect my business. I’m often wary of calling out every instance of sexism I experience, because if I’m seen to be ‘too difficult’ or ‘too aggressive’, or god forbid ‘too feminist’, I might alienate investors, partners or collaborators. And because my business funds education for women and girls, I feel an added weight of responsibility. My success means their success. If only all men in the start-up space thought the same way.

We’ve just made our first charity donation!

Words With Heart is super proud to announce that our first donation of $1062 has been made to One Girl, which is enough to give three girls access to education in Sierra Leone! This donation equates to $1 for every notebook and journal we sold during our crowd-funding campaign. So thank you, fantastic supporters – this is all because of YOU.

One Girl is a non-profit organisation who believe that EVERY girl has the right to an education– no matter where she is born, how much her parents earn, what her culture says, or what religion she adheres to. Every girl deserves the opportunity to learn, grow and be the best she can be. They’re on a mission to educate 1 million girls across Africa by 2020, and they’ve started their work in Sierra Leone – one of the toughest places on earth to be born a girl.

The funds will go to four girl focused projects, one of which is called Business Brains. With an unemployment rate of over 60%, it is important that girls in Sierra Leone leave school with the skills required to start their own business.

This is where Business Brains can help. This year, they have supplied 78 women and girls with adequate knowledge of entrepreneurship and literacy so they can start their own small business. The results were spectacular. This is Sarah’s Story:

Sarah, one of the participants raced home to her mum and asked for a $1 loan after the training had finished. Her mum gave her the money. Sarah visited the local market and collected all the ingredients she needed to make butterscotch. After cooking it all up, she began selling it around her community. Within a week she’d paid her mum back the loan, and now she is earning between $2 – $3 a week selling her butterscotch.

While this amount may not seem like much, it is enough to ensure Sarah gets at least one meal per day. This year One Girl are scaling up that program to reach more than 14,000 girls across Sierra Leone.

Want to do more to help? You can! One Girl is calling out to do something most people would of never thought they would have to do again – don a school dress. It’s called the Do It In A Dress Campaign, and it’s brilliant. To participate, you grab a school dress and complete some pretty awesome sounding challenges, such as completing fun runs/ marathons, going bungee jumping or even hosting your own party, all while wearing a dress. If you raise $300 dollars, you can provide one girl in Sierra Leone with education. Pretty special, huh? To get involved, or to support someone else’s Do It In A Dress activities,  all you need to do is click here.


Welcome to the Blog!

Welcome to the official Words With Heart Blog!

This is Words With Heart’s little hub to share new products and ideas with you guys! It will also serve a platform for feedback and discussion (so don’t be shy to leave a comment and introduce yourself ). Throughout this blog we’ll be talking about eco-friendly initiatives, girl’s education projects and anything else we find inspiring.

My story:

Hello! I’m Ellie Campbell and I’m the official Words With Heart Blogger. This time last year I was knee-deep in chemistry, anatomy and physiology assignments. After deciding that it was very close to impossible to be creative with science, I had an ah ha! moment where I decided to make a huge change and explore the field of journalism and marketing at Queensland University of Technology. I haven’t looked back since. My passion is food, I am a self-defined foodie. I absolutely love finding new recipes from different countries all over the world and trying them out. I find it incredible how I can travel the world from my own kitchen.

As a student, I believe that everyone should have the right to an education, no matter what gender. I also believe in the saying ‘words can change the word’. As a user of social media, I constantly see articles on my news feed that criticize women for their weight, height and general appearances. There is no doubt that social media’s popularity is on the rise, so I think it’s increasingly important for girls to receive empowering messages to inspire them and  make them feel good. At the end of the day, any little empowering message makes a difference, and that is exactly what Words With Heart’s stationery does.

If you ever have any questions or anything else  feel free to drop me a line at or leave a comment.

P.S my first Word’s With Heart post can’t happen without something inspiring- so here’s Emma Watson’s incredible UN speech (if you haven’t already seen it- now’s your chance!) 


Speaking of inspiration… Malala Yousufzai, the courageous 17-year-old girl who has become an absolute symbol for defiance in today’s society, won the Noble Peace Prize on Friday. I’d like to leave you with something Malala addressed to the UN:

“The wise saying, ‘The pen is mightier than sword’ was true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens.”

“The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”

Yours truly,

Ellie 🙂