One of the biggest challenges in facing down sexism is how insidiously it’s seeped its way into the institutions of our society. Even the most well-intentioned men can fall into bad habits without knowing it, and sometimes sexism lurks below the surface, manifesting in ways that are harmful for women even if they can’t be expressed with clarity. Case in point: a recent study regarding the world of venture capitalists and startups.
A survey conducted by LinkedIn asked respondents whether they’ve witnessed overt acts of sexism in their field. Despite the fact that 80% of female investors alleged that they’d encountered such issues, only 28% of male investors responded in the same way. The disparity was even more stark when looking at startup founders. A majority of female founders say they’d witnessed acts of sexism in contrast to only 8% of male founders.
It’s hard to argue the numbers, and the differences fall far outside of any potential for margin of error, but the vagueness of the question can make it hard to determine exactly where the problem lies. Regardless, it’s likely that indiscretions that seem obvious to women simply go unnoticed by men. One female founder put situation in clear terms by remarking on how often investors would ask her “when she plans on having kids.” It’s an expectation that would be rarely asked of men but which might seem innocent to the investors asking it.
And this blindness to issues can have a meaningful effect. Despite experiencing far worse sexism at the hands of her colleagues, investor Ellen Pao lost a discrimination suit against venture capital firm – and former employer – Kleiner Perkins. It’s a discrepancy that’s having a substantive effect on gender parity in the field. Less than six percent of venture capitalists in decision-making roles are women, and this lack of parity only exacerbates the normalcy of sexist behavior. When women are such a rarity in the field, casually sexist behavior and skepticism towards the female capacity to succeed in the field may seem only natural.
But this culture isn’t just hurting women. It’s hurting the industry as a whole. With women representing half the population, and with the men influencing business decisions so woefully out of touch with female interests, it can be hard to connect to female customers. But unless the world of venture capital changes its attitudes and makes meaningful efforts to put women in positions of prominence, they’ll continue to lose out on opportunities to court female consumers.