Women in biz: How to overcome (our own) gender bias

There are few overt barriers for women wanting to start businesses in the U.S., or to rise to the top of the corporate ladder. However, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Women’s Report, there still exist “covert” barriers to female success or entrepreneurial activity, and many of those barriers may originate in your heads, ladies.

Yes, admittedly some challenges are tied to status expectations or gendered roles, but the biggest barrier may have far more to do with the female psyche than it does with overt male discrimination. A GEM summary brief concludes, “In Europe and the United States, women are as highly educated, or more so, than men. Yet, they are less likely to believe they have the capabilities for starting businesses.”

Report author Candida G. Brush, distinguished professor in entrepreneurship, Babson College, explains: “Even though women may have more years of education, it may not relate to self-perceived confidence in their entrepreneurial capabilities. In developed economies, entrepreneurship is opportunity driven. Women, who are well-schooled in other disciplines than entrepreneurship, may question their ability to identify, assess and act on an opportunity.”

If you think that’s a bunch of hooey, the study found that in the U.S., there are only 10 female entrepreneurial activities for every 15 male initiatives. This isn’t the case worldwide — in Panama, Thailand, Ecuador, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana there are as many (or more) women entrepreneurs as male counterparts. However, the female-led businesses started in those countries tend to be simple, low-tech endeavors. In the countries of Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria, where women report great confidence in their business skills, the researchers postscripted that those women have a lower risk of entry than their U.S. sisters — they aren’t trading high-status, well-paid employment for the risks of starting a business. In those countries, too, it is the social norm for women to start businesses, providing role models for risk and success.

U.S. women have to work harder to network with female corporate leaders — and they also have to work harder to get equitable venture funding, the study revealed. However, while men do typically decide who gets what piece of the funding pie (venture capital still being a predominantly male enterprise), fast-growth high-tech companies also tend to be started by men.



Are male moneylenders truly discriminating, or are they responding to a lower number of applicants, or less-confident presentations?

What is harder to explain is the fact that in every one of the 67 different world economies studied, women expressed being less confident of their entrepreneurial expertise than men. The research — which was jointly sponsored by Babson College in the U.S., Universidad Del Desarrollo in Chile, and the University Tun Abdul Razak in Malaysia — surveyed 198,000 people in 69 countries to review 67 of those economies. In every region, women self-reported being more afraid of failure than did the men surveyed.

Building confidence muscles

1. Make peace with the fact that you will make mistakes and have regrets. Entrepreneurs with high self-esteem more easily shake off feelings of worthlessness and learn from regretful experiences, because they don’t define themselves using failure as a measuring stick. They value the fact that they can avoid those mistakes in the next venture, and so it becomes easier for them to move ahead and try again.

2. People with higher self-esteem remember the good alongside the bad. Two people play a game of tennis with similar skill levels. The person lacking self-confidence will think about the game longer and will dwell on the missed shots — the failed returns or wonky serves. The person with higher self-esteem remembers both the good and the bad, extracts lessons from both, and moves on. This levels out the road they walk every day. Keep a victory lot — a small notebook in a pocket or purse. Jot down your five top performance highlights and then add at least one a week to that list. Review thank-you notes received from colleagues, clients, even your friends.

3. Look for a more confident you in the mirror. Instead of looking for gray hairs, look at the intelligence and experience alive in your eyes. Accept your real blemishes and figure out what to do about them. Do you need a skill set, a new advisor or mentor, an executive life coach, a new mindset, or a different opportunity? (If you decide you need a mentor, search one out with the skills you aspire to — one with real-world experience and also self-confidence. You don’t need a buddy to commiserate with.)

4. Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated. Too often, the first place we have to leave is our own psychic space, which is full of self-doubt or recriminations. Then apply that lens to personal relationships, and finally, to our professional reality.

5. Take a risk: Do something, even if it is wrong. Start with a low-risk venture and work your way up to a higher risk. Ask someone you admire out to lunch.

6. Control your internal storyboard. Interpret your fear of an upcoming lunch or presentation as excitement; befriend your adrenaline. Realize the opportunity to learn a lot from the experience, however it goes. Remember the tennis game: Process both good and bad lessons and then move on to the next match.

7. Develop realistic expectations. You likely won’t be wildly successful in your new venture in the first year, nor should you expect to fail miserably and utterly. People who lack self-confidence actually may hold themselves to higher or lower standards than is reasonably possible. If you consistently fail to accomplish goals, ask an impartial business advisor to review your startup management or business goals with you. Competence isn’t another word for perfection. If that’s the mirror you are looking into, you need a new looking glass.

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