It started with a phone call.
“I just joined this organization,” my friend excitedly relayed on the other end of the line. “It’s for women in marketing. It will be great for networking!”
I could feel her enthusiasm coming through the phone, all the hope and promise her voice contained — but knew that I’d be doing her a disservice if I didn’t crush it.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen the rise of multiple programs, communities and associations geared towards helping women advance in their careers. They often focus on helping women build up their skills, stay up to date on industry trends and network with one another. But while all these organizations were started with the most noble of intentions, they do have a hidden cost.
Allow me to explain.
Ever since I started a company, I’ve been bombarded with invitations to join female founder communities. At the beginning, I was excited. Networking with other women who were on the same journey? Sign me up! I would eagerly join, only to be disappointed soon after. Most of these communities were barely active. While they promised access to investors and helpful content, I found that most of what they offered could be found anywhere on the internet, and access to investors was usually a mirage.
At the same time, I noticed another trend: Whenever I would join “gender-blind” founder communities, male founders were usually more likely to be further along in their journeys and more connected. Last but not least, they were much more open to sharing their social capital. Most of the opportunities I’ve had happened because a number of my male counterparts were willing to open doors for me and my company.
My experience is hardly unique. In one-on-one Zoom calls, many female founders have leaned closer to the camera and quietly said something along the lines of, “Me too.” Despite our best efforts to help each other, oftentimes it was men — not other women — that helped us reach a certain milestone. In fact, some female founders have spoken openly about having similar experiences.
Why, then, does the myth of the powerful all-woman community persist?
The rise of female-only communities in the mid 2010s coincided with a time when women were finally able to step forward and share their experiences in the tech industry without considerable career risk. Tales of gender discrimination, unequal pay, sexual harassment and bro culture dominated the conversation. Given this environment, it was hardly surprising that women leaders and founders received only a tiny fraction of VC dollars. Something had to be done. It was time that women came together and rectified the errors.
The result was a proliferation of communities and programs promising to empower women and accelerate their professional success. The apparent narrative behind many of them was simple: Women are often uncomfortable in the bro culture of Silicon Valley and cannot forge strong relationships over after-work beers or ping-pong games. In theory, they feel safer and more comfortable networking with other women, and because women have the shared experience of being female, they will support and help each other out. The result will be more VC investment, wealth creation and career advancement for women.
But despite the existence of many such communities, the fraction of VC dollars invested in female-founded startups has hardly moved. Women still make 80 cents for every dollar men make. While well-meaning and inspired by a noble vision, all women-only programs and communities combined have barely moved the needle in the last 10 years.
It turns out that to really shatter the glass ceiling, women need more than each other. We need allies.
The reality is that the majority of successful startup founders, VCs and angel investors are male. Companies with at least one female founder account for 8.8 percent of the exit value of all startup exits, 10 times more than the exit value of startups that are led by women only. It is hardly surprising, then, that despite accounting for 25 percent of the startup founders in the U.S., women still lack the combined power to drive meaningful change on our own.
Founders with prior exits are more likely to be active angel investors and to have strong relationships with other angels and VCs. An introduction from such a founder can easily open the right doors that send a startup on the path to success. However, it is also very unlikely that such a founder will be a woman. Therefore, telling women that female-only communities are enough to launch their careers into the stratosphere is unlikely to result in the creation of more female leaders.
If women only build relationships with one another, we may feel safer — but we will pay a very high price for the feeling of comfort. Since men still hold most of the money and power, if women fail to find male allies and build strong relationships with them, opportunities for advancement will forever remain out of our reach. This will not only fail to close the existing gender disparities, it will perpetuate and possibly exacerbate them.
To rectify this, we must find male allies who are willing to write checks and open doors. Unfortunately, we can rarely find them in female-only communities. In my personal experience, the easiest way to connect with them is either through mixed-gender communities or through warm intros. For me, the latter have come from other men more often than not.
In my experience there are plenty of men who want to help women advance their careers by writing checks, making intros and offering advice. However, no matter how much male allies may want to eradicate gender inequality, by virtue of how startup networks are set up, it may be difficult for them to connect with female founders. To really make a difference, both men and women need to take a proactive approach to expanding their networks beyond people who look like them.
This requires keeping an open mind and finding less traditional ways of meeting people. For example, some male VCs already host office hours for female founders, which can help fill their deal pipeline with women entrepreneurs. It would be great if this went one step farther and male investors committed to diversifying their portfolios by investing in a certain percentage of female founders every year — either as VCs or as angels. This way, women will have more access to capital and the contacts to build bigger, thriving businesses.
It is paramount that both genders build diverse networks and strong relationships with both men and women. The closer women are to the most successful and connected people, the more female leaders we will see. And the more influential women there are, the closer we will get to making gender inequality a thing of the past.