“You can’t be what you can’t see”: addressing gender imbalance in the startup ecosystem

Gender imbalance

Female founders are outnumbered three to one in Australia’s startup ecosystem because they often lack the support of a strong network of ‘door openers’, according to Fiona Boyd, the CEO of Heads Over Heels. 

She explained that Head Over Heels, an Australian not-for-profit founded in 2010, provides female entrepreneurs with a “powerful platform” to scale – and otherwise achieve “outstanding results” in – their businesses by connecting them with influential industry and business leaders who, in turn, can introduce them to key players in their own networks.

Boyd said that more than 2500 connections have been facilitated through Heads Over Heels events and other ‘door-opening activities’, resulting in female led and founded businesses securing new customers, strategic partners, mentors and advisory board members plus a combined total of $23 million in investments.

Excluding alumni and its pipeline of emerging businesses, Heads Over Heels has 30 active ‘portfolio’ companies, selected through a screening process.  Boyd explained, “We look for businesses that have plans and ambition to scale globally. They need to demonstrate they are solving a real problem and have a product or solution that can be applied to different markets within the next few years. Not all our portfolio companies will achieve that, but we definitely love working with women who have big dreams and ambitions.”

In addition to gaining access to Heads Over Heels’ network of 1000+ ‘Connectors’, Boyd said portfolio companies receive guidance and mentoring to prepare for pitch presentations at portfolio events.

“We assist portfolio companies with presentation skills, financial reporting, market/customer segmentation, branding, unique value proposition, and clear messaging, all of which are critical business skills required by women entrepreneurs to succeed,” Boyd explained. “This helps to increase the confidence and professionalism of the women who are pitching, which in turn helps them to achieve more successful outcomes both during and after the actual events.”

In conversation with Dynamic Business, Boyd spoke about the biases, unconscious or otherwise, that have meant that women continue to be under-represented on boards, at executive levels in corporations and within the startup ecosystem.

DB: What barriers do entrepreneurial women face?

Boyd: The underrepresentation of women in business leadership is a historical issue, which is having a generational impact. While this issue is slowly being addressed, several layers of unconscious bias (perpetuated over many years) still need to be unraveled – for example, a common misconception that flies in the face of extensive research is that women are ‘not financially astute’. Further, women are also not often natural ‘self-promoters’, which can be misinterpreted as a lack of confidence.  As a consequence of both unconscious and entrenched gender bias, many women face difficulties when it comes to raising capital and forming a broad network of people who can make a real difference in their careers, including financiers, mentors, advisors, prospective clients or suppliers. Having access to an interconnected and powerful network has been proven to be one of the most important determinants of entrepreneurial success.

DB: Have you encountered gender bias first-hand?

Boyd: I can provide countless examples of when I’ve either personally encountered barriers to career progression or when my friends and colleagues have. These encounters have ranged from casual, unthinking and often unconscious bias right through to blatantly aggressive tactics including exclusion and bullying. For instance, I have seen an incredibly experienced and talented female marketing manager denied the opportunity to even be considered for an interview for a promotion due to a ‘lack of financial acumen… even though she had previously worked as an accountant and was a qualified CPA. In this specific case, the job was simply awarded without due process to the only other internal candidate who was male.

DB: What actions are needed to level the playing field?

Boyd: There is evidence that prevailing stereotypes, including masculine notions of leadership, can deter women from pursuing an entrepreneurial career – as the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see”. In order to break down stereotypes and assumptions about women, and thus shape the new ‘norm’ of entrepreneurship, we need to raise awareness of female role models and celebrate the successes of Australia’s women business leaders. This must involve moving away from focusing only on traditionally masculine attributes of leadership, and valuing additional traits that may be more common in women such as empathy and emotional intelligence.

Australian business culture has developed considerably in recent years, and has become a mostly fair and benevolent place that respects and values diversity. However, we all need to call out and denounce the often-blatant sexism and misogyny that has led to women leaders being denigrated for simply being women, rather than being admired for their ability to do the job.

There are several outstanding initiatives, which have significantly moved the dial within the Australian business landscape, including the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ 30% program designed to increase the number of women Directors on Boards, and the ‘Male Champions of Change’ initiative.  However, there are still many cultural behaviours and reactionary voices in mainstream media, politics and within some businesses that are not aligned with broader community values.

A stronger representation of women at ALL levels is needed and we need both men and women to be advocates for the women around them, encouraging them to start a business, to go for the promotion, or to even just allow their voices to be heard.

DB: Are any sectors crying out for greater balance? 

Boyd: One sector that’s still very under-represented, in terms of both founders and employees, is fintech.  According to the EY Fintech Census, women account for less than 13% of founders and less than 22% of employees in Australia’s fintech sector.  This is surprising because the mainstream financial services industry, which accounts for $140 billion of our GDP, is one of the biggest employers of women.  The fact that there are so few women working in fintech suggests there may be some underlying barriers or cultural bias factors that are impacting women from participating more fully in this sector.

DB: In which sectors are female entrepreneurs excelling?

Boyd: There are several industries where women are creating exciting new products and solutions that will help address many of the most pressing problems in society. In terms of specific sectors, women seem to have a natural aptitude for – and are achieving some outstanding successes in – biotech and medtech. The Heads Over Heels portfolio, together with our pipeline of 150 emerging leaders, boasts several of these women, each of whom has either a scientific or business background.  There are also some incredibly talented women, particularly within regional Australia, who are building some amazing agtech businesses.  This is quite appropriate, from an historical perspective, when you consider the number of pioneering women who have helped build the Australian economy from early settlement through to the present day.