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.