What happens when we speak out against sexism in the startup ecosystem

Startupfeminst Blog

CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of gaslighting, sexual harassment and microagressions towards women.

Last week, we were invited to a Panel Talk on Diveee with Julia Kuemper, CEO of Venture Villa and Meike Korritko, Communications Manager & Consultant at Venture Villa about sexism in the startup ecosystem.

52% of women have experienced gender bias in the workplace

We got to know each other when working on VentureVilla’s Project for International Women’s Day where women shared their experiences of sexism in a video. Despite a staggering 52% of women having experienced gender bias in the workplace, many are still afraid to speak out against sexism. This goes especially for founders in the Startup Ecosystem because they are afraid they will face negative consequences. They’re dependent on investor money and so more often than not, women decide to keep quiet as to not further lessen their chances of receiving funding — after all, only a meagre 2.3% of Global VC Funding in 2020 went to female founders.

The sexism in the startup ecosystem often happens behind closed doors — during investor talks or at events. Women who attend events as a founder are being “mistaken” as prostitutes, because how could a woman possibly be attending a black tie dinner at a tech conference as anything else but eye candy on the side of a male founder? They’re asked whose secretary they are when signing in at an event. They’re being told that their idea is great and that if they had a man as part of the founding team, they’d receive funding immediately. But because they’re a female-only founded company, it’s “Thanks but, no thanks.”

With blatant discrimination taking place behind closed doors, how can anyone be surprised that women choose to keep their experiences to themselves?

When they DO speak out, they find themselves caught in a system that makes it incredibly hard to get their voices heard and to be taken seriously.

Julia likened it to an Inner-to-Outer-Circle system where each circle layer gets tougher and tougher to get out of.


Even when these women are listened to, they’re met with reactions that are the opposite of helpful: they’re either silenced or told that what they’ve experienced “isn’t that bad”, effectively getting gaslighted into silence and starting to doubt themselves. The lack of Allyship and reporting procedures is an added hurdle to overcome, with many not willing to publicly take a stand against sexism even if they believe the victims.

Let me give you an insight into what it’s like when you take this issue to politicians.” Julia said. “They absolutely recognize that this is a problem and they’re aware of these issues. But then they argue that ‘it’s not easy’ to address sexism. What it boils down to is that they would have to publicly admit that something is wrong, that they’ve failed to address the issue so far and that people are turning a blind eye to it. And that’s super inconvenient, so they tell you that it’s ‘just not a good time’ to speak about this. But there are also others who understand the pain women are suffering and doing their best to listen and learn. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, it will be the case that work on this issue is not just behind the scenes.”

Another topic we spoke at length about is the fact that sexism doesn’t necessarily mean someone is being sexually harassed or openly discriminated against. Often, it’s the “little” things that add up: the daily microagressions that women have to face on a daily basis -on the way to work, at work, going for drinks with their friends, at home- the list is long.

Being talked over during a meeting, male colleagues assuming you will empty the dishwasher in the work kitchen because you’re the only woman around even if your title is CMO or Head of Sales, being asked if you’re on your period because you may have reacted in an unexpected way to something they said — every woman probably has dozens of examples like these to share.

If women are unsure about whether what they’ve experienced was sexism, how can we expect men to become our allies and call out sexist behaviour?

And this is where the next issue lies — there is still a significant number of women who don’t know what constitutes as sexism and who have been socially conditioned to believe that microagressions and gaslighting are nothing more than just “Jokes” and “he didn’t mean it THAT way”. This raises the question: if women are unsure about whether what they’ve experienced was sexism, how can we expect men to become our allies and call out sexist behaviour?

There is currently no right answer to this question, but it has to start with educating both men and women about what constitutes as sexist behaviour, how to spot it and how to speak out against it and react. It’s a topic that needs to be driven by CEOs, Board Members, team leads, peers, politicians and policy makers. Equality and Diversity shouldn’t just be an agenda point once a year that can be ticked off, but it should be made an integral part of every single company’s core values.

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Drop us a message at [email protected] if you want to talk about collaborating on a project or want to learn how we can help your company take the first step in putting equality at the core of your business.