Gender, entrepreneurship, and the realignment of workplace incentives


For many years, I have avoided publicly discussing the ways in which my gender has impacted my professional life. Although there have always been challenges, I have succeeded not because I dwelled on those challenges, but because I refused to allow them to derail the pursuit of my goals. It was important to me that if I was to be taken seriously as a leader, I must be just that, not a ‘female leader’.

Perhaps, as I have become more confident of myself as a leader, I’ve become more comfortable with the ways in which my multiple identities - a professional and a mother, a Managing Director and a wife - are overlayed. But recently, an email from my daughter, chiding me for being too eager to compromise in the name of making peace, reminded me that although many things have become easier for women in the business world, many of the challenges that I’ve faced throughout my career persist. These reflections reopened the question for me; perhaps I’m more of a ‘female leader’ than I had been willing to admit.

Decades ago, in college, subjected to “eve-teasing” (our polite euphemism for harassment), I was forced to wear a sari every day to escape unwanted attention. Months ago, a well intentioned but misguided man at a conference in Vancouver asked me if I came along with my husband. From the subtle and accidental discrimination of low expectations to outright harassment, my stories are unique only in their particulars and not confined to any country or continent; any woman who has persevered in the business world has a collection of her own to share.

We live in a professional world where advancement often comes only when we advocate loudly for ourselves. But we live in a social world in which women who advocate too loudly for themselves are often perceived as pushy, difficult, or unpleasant. Navigating between these opposing incentives is a skill that we are forced to learn with little academic or professional support. Early in my career, when I received my first annual raise - barely an inflation adjustment at 3% - I eventually gathered the courage to ask my supervisor why my accomplishments had gone unrecognized. He pointed to the self evaluation in which I had failed to flag a single one of those accomplishments; I simply wasn’t comfortable advertising my own successes. Even today, when I am recognised or offered an award, I immediately fall into self-effacing mode, reflecting a personality that’s uncomfortable with being in the limelight.

It is important for women such as me, women who have already fought and won many of these battles, to encourage younger women to keep pushing, to trumpet their accomplishments, and be their own loudest advocates. But empirical evidence now confirms what professional women have known for years: men who advocate for themselves are often rewarded for their confidence while women who take the same approach can be penalized by their superiors.

We shouldn’t be surprised by a finding that confirms a basic truth about humans: people respond to incentives. A 2013 paper from Harvard University’s Kennedy School subtitled “Why Women Don’t Ask”, considers the wealth of factors that contribute to women’s negotiation decisions and finds a number of disincentives to women when it comes to self-advocacy. These range from negative judgments from supervisors to fears that hard negotiators will be expected to spend more hours in the office, which might conflict with responsibilities at home. Our task, then, is not just to help women become better negotiators, but to help change the environment in which that negotiation takes place. It’s time to start realigning the incentives.

One way to do that is to support the creation of businesses that have been founded and led by women, especially in the male dominated technology world. And that’s why StartupGirls is so important to me; though we will begin by hosting an event, we hope to end by building a community.

At StartupGirls, we will bring together 200 women entrepreneurs who run or own young tech businesses. And though we see the event as an opportunity to connect experienced thought leaders with younger founders, we’re more excited about the long term potential to pave the way for these women to become the architects of a new ecosystem of women-led technology startups. We believe that it makes a difference when there’s a woman on both sides of the negotiating table. We believe that women-led companies are more likely to create management structures that will allow their employees to rise through the ranks even as they balance professional and family commitments. And most importantly, we believe for this to happen, women entrepreneurs need access to the same kinds of networks and support systems that their male counterparts have long enjoyed.

StartupGirls is a small step on the road to changing professional incentives to support women’s success in the Indian technology world. Since we announced the event we have received overwhelmingly positive response from every corner. From senior members in government to India’s tech leaders, both men and women have expressed their support and passion for this initiative. The response has been beyond our expectation. To create this dialog, we would love to hear from you. Please complete our survey here.


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