Challenges of Being a Female Entrepreneur

challenges of being a female entrepreneurI normally don’t write about gender-related issues. I have honestly not given that much thought to such issues in the past. However, I’ve recently read some articles that talked about the challenges of being a female entrepreneur which enticed me to think more about the topic.

Even considering what challenges come with being a female entrepreneur is difficult. It is hard to draw a circle around specific experiences and say I’ve had certain ones because I was a female. It’s even harder to know what perspectives and biases of my own that I bring to the table.

Many of the articles seemed to point to the following challenges (many called them disadvantages) of being a female entrepreneur:

  • Women are less confident, and this precludes taking necessary business risks.
  • Women are more afraid of failure. This also precludes necessary business risks (and growth).
  • Women are less able to speak about their accomplishments than men are.
  • There are not enough women entrepreneur role models.
  • Women have more of an emotional connection to the business. Articles state that men “care more about the bottom line” than women.
  • Women are much less likely to get funding.

These statements seemed to be soaked in stereotypes although some are statistically sound. I don’t really know what to do with them other than throw them out there then compare my own experience to them. Some of them are simply not true for me: I consider myself confident. I don’t consider myself to be stopped by a fear of failure. Some are true: I do sometimes have trouble speaking about my accomplishments (but I am not sure if this is due to me being female).  Some are simply inapplicable:  I have never tried to get funding.

So instead of trying to make broad statements about what women entrepreneurs feel generally, I am going to talk about three specific experiences I have faced.

Experiences and Challenges of Being a Female Entrepreneur:

Before naming the experiences and challenges I’ve faced, I want to say that I do not think that there is any disadvantage that doesn’t also come with an advantage. There is not one bad thing that comes along that does not escort some flecks of good with it. Blessings and burdens go hand in hand.

So I am not calling anything an advantage or disadvantage. I just call it an experience or a challenge, but it could also be called a “non-advantage” if you will. Something that, for me at least, is not terrible and not great. I don’t mean to downplay any true and real struggles that female entrepreneurs face − indeed, many of them are more “bad” than “good” in a lot of ways − but from my own experience, I think that whatever challenges I have faced are too complex to box into categories of “advantage” or “disadvantage.”  What has seemed to be really annoying or bad or challenging in the past has actually ended up being great for me and my business.

So that is why I call it an experience: It is just there. Sometimes more bad than good. Sometimes the exact opposite. We can take it or leave it or ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. It can be a challenge, but one that can make us stronger if we handle it the right way.

Three Experiences I have had as a Female Entrepreneur:

1. Not being taken seriously as a business owner.

This was much more pronounced when I started my business and used to annoy me immensely.

I distinctly remember telling a friend that I was starting my own bar exam and law school tutoring business, and being told that my idea was “cute”.  I thought this was an unusual way to describe a business − yet alone a bar exam and law school tutoring business. I wasn’t selling candles on Etsy.

It also shows up in more innocuous ways. About six months after I started my business full-time, one of my friends asked me “Who is supporting you now?”  I was living on my own at the time, paying all the same bills everyone else pays − and even making more money than I ever had before.

So when my friend asked me who was supporting me, I just said, “Um, me.”

“Isn’t your dad helping you out?” 

Um, no.

This was a friend who was my age and didn’t hold any strange ideas about gender roles as far as I knew. He had never told me to quit working, find a husband and start having babies. But I guess even the best-intentioned of us have some kind of biases. They are probably so deeply-ingrained that we do not even notice them.

Having to fight to be taken seriously is an uphill battle that takes up a lot of energy. But it also gives me a lot of energy. It came with some serious advantages − the two which I can decipher are as follows:

The first advantage was sincere motivation to prove that my cute business idea was actually a profitable one. Like many people, as soon as someone tells me I can’t do something, I am only more motivated to try. I used to think of the Chinese proverb a lot: “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.”

Another advantage?

This sounds weird but I distinctly remember feeling this a lot when I first started − and that was, lower societal pressure to succeed right away. I had motivation to succeed to prove everyone wrong (and motivation to pay my bills!), but I didn’t feel any outside pressure to make a ton of money overnight.  After all, I was not seen as “the provider” of a family. I was a woman with a “cute side business”! Lower expectations are not generally good, but in my case, they actually had the bonus of lifting some weird but real societal pressure to succeed right away. That gave me freedom to try something new like starting a business.

I remember comparing myself with some of my male friends who felt a lot of pressure to make a lot of money and provide a certain lifestyle for that family. And this invisible pressure that is easy to dismiss from afar was a very real motivator for them and a very real burden they had to carry. I had several discussions with several friends over several cups of coffee (and baileys). And this pressure, this dark cloud, always revealed itself in our conversations.  They felt as though they had to make money so that their girlfriends, fiancés, or wives could choose to not work if they wanted to. They had to get a corporate job in a high-end company or high-end law firm. And they had to do it yesterday. I am not saying that this is a pressure that only males feel, but it is a pressure that I distinctly remembering my male friends feeling.

If I had felt that kind of pressure and caved into it, I would have been applying for big firm jobs and polishing up my LinkedIn profile, instead of diving headfirst into entrepreneurship.

Yes, I had to pay my bills and “support myself” and I certainly did feel a very real pressure to make enough money to do that (and that pressure should not be minimized!) but outside of that, I did not feel any extra “societal” pressure to provide for my invisible family from my cute side business.

I only felt internal motivation and ambition.

2. I am constantly being bombarded with “advice.”

It seems that people are full of advice generally and love to tell others what to do (I am guilty of this myself!), so I am not sure if being bombarded with unasked-for advice is specific to females, or more pronounced if you’re a female entrepreneur, or if all entrepreneurs experience it equally. But I am constantly being graced with all kinds of “business advice” and “great ideas I must have never thought of.”  And I can’t help but sometimes think my gender has something to do with it.

I remember an old boss comparing me and a male counterpart. “Ashley and Marty are both very smart. Ashley has the book smarts. Marty has the business smarts and street smarts.” I knew my boss for about one week at the time this statement was made and I remember thinking that was a very unusual thing to say.

I am still constantly being bombarded with advice. A lawyer invited me to lunch with him over the summer to talk about an idea. The entire time he gave me advice about “what I need to be doing” to grow a business he knew (and asked) almost nothing about.

“You should write articles!” he exclaimed, so excited by his great idea.

“I do.” I said, unamused. “I just published three articles in the National Jurist. And also, a book.”

“You should teach some kind of bar exam class!” 

“I do. I teach an essay class and a multistate course both privately and at a law school.”   

“You should start a blog!”

“Didn’t you, like, google me before we met?”

He was well-meaning. And people in general who give advice tend to be well-meaning. But as soon as someone says, “I know exactly what you need!” (without asking anything about what I do) I am reaching into my pocket, pulling out my phone, saying, “I have to take this!” and running away.

This extends to day-to-day transactions as well. I signed a lease agreement for my office a couple of years ago with someone who proceeded to explain what all the “legal jargon” meant.  I responded “I know. As I said, I’m moving my bar exam tutoring company and law firm into this suite. I just drafted a lease like that for a client.” He cocked his head to the side and kind of looked at me like I was speaking a different language, then proceeded to explain the lease provisions.

It is hard to believe that there is any advantage that comes with such annoying behavior. I hate being told what to do so if there was an “off” button, I’d be the first one to push it. But the advantage is . . . well, a lot of advice!  Even if it is not good advice and even if it is annoying to constantly be told what to do, I am exposed to new outlooks and ideas. And even if someone advises me to do something I am already doing or have already done, it is at least put on my radar again.

3. Not having a “dog eat dog” attitude.

I do not know if this is a “woman” thing primarily, and I somehow suspect it is not. One thing I have read, several times, in articles that discussed the disadvantages of being a female entrepreneur (so many times that I really think that they all just copied and pasted from each other!) is that “women aren’t competitive enough” and “care more about their emotional connection with their business than the bottom line.” They don’t have the same “dog eat dog” attitude as men.

I consider myself to be very competitive − but only when I need to be. I do not have a “dog eat dog” attitude. I don’t try to step on competition, or put anyone down. I was not the person in law school that hid outlines from others so that I could do better on the exam. In law school, I just worked on learning the material myself and didn’t worry about stepping on anyone else, and it worked out well for me.  I take the same attitude toward my business.  I’d prefer to just have a great service and product rather than worry about what everyone else is doing or trying to tear others down.

I would also say that I really do care more about the value of my business than the bottom line, another criticism of female entrepreneurs.  I sometimes make what all those people giving me advice call “fiscally imprudent” decisions. Which I take full responsibility for.  If I think a “fiscally imprudent” decision increases the value of my business for myself, my employees, or my clients, I will follow through with it even if it means a few less dollars in my pocket by the end of the year. However, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I own a business to make money but also to create value. (And in the end, something that appears imprudent might actually be “fiscally prudent” if it makes my clients or employees happy.)

And instead of competing with my competition, I have tended to collaborate with them. The term another female entrepreneur used was “collabatition” to describe it − a word that means “collaboration with your competition” in order to move both companies forward.

Oddly enough, the “competitors” that I work with all tend to be women! I absolutely love working with other women who are in business − even if we are technically “competitors.”  I am not sure if it is because women are more inclined to work together, or because the women competitors I have met are awesome (and seem to be rarer than men, so maybe we have more in common and gravitate toward each other).  Or because women competitors that I have met tend to give less advice than the males so I am not always running away with my cell phone pretending I need to take a call.

So far, however, this has not had any adverse effects that I know of! In fact, I think it has been very beneficial. I do not think I need to step on my competitors to get clients. Indeed, I get plenty of clients through my collabatition (and I suspect that it raises the credibility a client has in my business if the competition refers me rather than if I simply trash my competition to get a client!)

Just the beginning of the conversation:

Are there other advantages and disadvantages of being a female entrepreneur (or a female in the legal/business/corporate world at all)?  Yes. I have heard many stories and examples after I started asking my friends about it.

It is clearly not just entrepreneurs that face challenges, advantages, disadvantages, and experiences − but also those in business, law, and other fields. Indeed, the stories that female lawyers have are outrageous and it seems I am reading them on Facebook daily. Stories of judges and attorneys calling female attorneys “honey” and “sweetie.” Female attorneys constantly being mistaken for the secretary or paralegal.

These kinds of things are hard to name, hard to explain, and hard to face. It’s hard to know what to do with these experiences.

I don’t think that these experiences will go away any time soon. And I don’t think we can erase these deeply-grained biases any time soon. I think we just have to live with them. Take the good with the bad. Share our stories and try to understand each other rather than becoming disconnected or guarded. The former opens us up to new perspectives, experience, insights and forces us to step outside of our comfort zone. The latter ruins our chances of learning new things about ourselves and others and any potential for unity and understanding.

Sharing our stories is a first step.

That is we are starting a new series about female entrepreneurs. We have some wonderful entrepreneurs lined up to give us their insight but if you know of any yourself please email us at [email protected] and let us know who they are!