Research Reveals ‘Benevolent Sexism’ in Startups Increases Gender Disparity

Ever glanced at the startup world and thought sexism was a thing of the past? Well, think again. We’re diving into the often-overlooked, subtle yet deeply ingrained sexist attitudes that float around, seemingly harmless and socially accepted. Yep, we’re going there. And you won’t believe how widespread this issue is, touching everyone from investors and suppliers to job applicants in the startup scene. It’s like a silent storm quietly shaping how decisions are made and who gets ahead.

But, hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. To genuinely kick gender inequality in the teeth, especially in entrepreneurship, we’ve gotta get our heads around these sneaky biases women entrepreneurs face. Ready for a deep dive?

The Sneaky Side of Sexism in Entrepreneurship

Let’s talk about this wolf in sheep’s clothing called benevolent sexism. Sounds nice, right? Wrong. It’s this twisted form of bias that plays dress-up as compliments and positive vibes towards women, all while chaining us to those age-old, dusty gender roles and cementing inequality like it’s nobody’s business.

Here’s the kicker: This brand of sexism is super sneaky because it comes off as positive. It paints women as these delicate flowers needing protection, with men as the big, strong protectors. And because it sounds so nice on the surface, hardly anyone calls it out for what it is—an illusion of support that’s actually holding women back by a mile.

A figure of a woman standing on a stack of coins with a plastic cup placed over it. Beside it is a figure of a man standing on a taller stack of coins.
Benevolent sexism often shows women as needing protection, while men are the heroes.

And, you guessed it, research is backing this up left, right, and center, showing that these seemingly harmless beliefs actually keep women from climbing the corporate ladder, especially in the startup world, which should really be a playground of innovation, not antiquated bias.

With fewer women leading the charge in entrepreneurship, this subtle sexism gets a free pass, creating a sneaky disadvantage that’s tough to spot and even tougher to challenge.

How Benevolent Sexism Favors Johnny Over Jane

Our research goes down the rabbit hole to explore how this benevolent sexism plays out in real life, affecting how startup evaluators view men vs. women at the helm. Spoiler alert: It’s not looking good for the ladies.

We dug into this with a trio of studies, putting hypothetical startups under the microscope, led by either a man or a woman, with all else being equal. And guess what? The more these evaluators were down with benevolent sexism, the higher they rated the startups led by men. Women’s startups? Not so much. And this trend held up regardless of the evaluator’s gender in most cases.

Time to Level the Playing Field

Our findings are a wake-up call to rethink how we’re tackling gender equity in the startup world. It’s not just about dismantling barriers for women; we’ve also got to address the unearned head starts men are getting.

Turns out, a lot of the strategies we’ve been leaning on—think education, mentoring, networking—aren’t cutting it because they ignore the subtle leg-ups given to men. It’s time for some fresh strategies that shine a light on the invisible helping hand of benevolent sexism, making everyone aware that it’s not as benign as it seems.

Beyond just raising awareness, we need a total makeover of how startups are evaluated. Say goodbye to vague, unstructured criteria and hello to clear, transparent benchmarks that give no room for bias to hide.

The Bottom Line: Fix the System, Not the Women

Traditional advice for combating sexism in the startup world often puts the onus on women to change. But here’s a radical thought: What if, instead of telling women to adapt, we fix the system that’s setting them back in the first place?

Our research flips the script, showing that even with the same skills and ideas, men-led startups get a warmer reception. Initiatives aimed at bridging the gender gap might actually be doing more harm than good if they inadvertently perpetuate benevolent sexism.

So, what’s the game plan? Revolutionize evaluators’ attitudes and behaviors, and stop telling women to change to fit into a broken system. After all, it’s high time we fixed the system to welcome women as they are, talents blazing and ready to lead.

Authored by a passionate team from McGill University, INSEAD, York University, Canada, and the University of Amsterdam, this expose is not just talk—it’s a call to action. Republished with pride from The Conversation, where we’re busy sparking dialogues that matter.

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