Although we as a society have made great strides over the past five or six decades, women in the business world still run into roadblocks that men don’t have to deal with. Modern females are raised with the concept of “having it all”—family, career, and a flawless appearance to boot—but the reality is that achieving this dream can be a Catch-22 when gender-specific obstacles are put in the way of female entrepreneurs.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning for the US State Department, understands the unique obstacles that women seeking a path to the top in government and private sector organizations face. In her essay for The Atlantic titled Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, she lays out the rewards and challenges of holding a high profile job, and her decision to leave Washington.
And from the same article, Sheryl Sandberg, a technology executive most known for her role as Facebook’s COO states: “Women are not making it to the top. A hundred and ninety heads of state; nine are women. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, [the share of] women at the top—C-level jobs, board seats—tops out at 15, 16 percent.”
Here are the top business obstacles that are unique to female entrepreneurs, and tips to get over those hurdles.
Lack of Funding
According to a 2014 Babson College report, women’s startups get a lot less investor funding. Though things are slowly improving—early-stage investment in businesses who have female executives has increased from 5% to 15% since 1999—businesses with women at the top still struggle to get funding. Even though women-led enterprises bring in approximately 12% more revenue than companies run by male CEOs, less than 3% of venture-backed companies are run by women.
To overcome the funding gap, some women, like Aspect Ventures founders Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad, launched their own VC firms. Others have sought out funding opportunities with companies like Aspect Ventures, or applied for grants and loans from organizations committed to furthering the advancement of female entrepreneurs, like the Small Business Administration’s SBA Resources for Wome.
Few Female Mentors
Like Slaughter, many women make the difficult decision to leave a high-profile position to focus on their family. While it is certainly understandable why she made the choice to leave Washington, some worry that the dwindling number of female mentors has had a negative effect. You may have to look harder to find women role models in your industry, but they are out there. Slaughter continues to influence young women, as well as women seeking to build a career later in life, by sharing her experiences.
To overcome this lack of female role models, many female entrepreneurs—from Spanx founder Sara Blakely (who, by the way, is the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States) to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling—give this advice women wanting to start their own business in a male-dominated world: don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you can’t find a mentor, follow your passion and become a mentor for the younger generation.
Use Madam C. J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove) as your “internal mentor.” She was one of the first African American women in the US to become a millionaire with her cosmetic line. And when you consider the obstacles she faced during her lifetime—racism, misogyny, lack of financial backing—and how she succeeded despite them, it makes it easier for you to do succeed. Like Slaughter, Sarah Breedlove wanted to make the world a better place for women by encouraging them to “make things happen” on their own terms.
The Work/Family Struggle
Ironically, despite a lack of prominent female superheroes in movies today, many women are expected to be superwomen as they attempt to balance a high-level career and family. While many male CEOs are, of course, married with kids, that’s a choice they’re never expected to make: one or the other. If they pursue their career to the point of neglecting their family life, rarely are they chastised for it.
And once women finally break through the glass ceiling, there’s an unrealistic expectation that they should be able to fix problems other CEOs have created—typically messes created by a men. These stereotypical assumptions often mean that women must work longer hours, strive for absolute perfection in the workplace (not to mention in their appearance), and somehow find a way to raise happy, thriving children without any help.
This role isn’t just imposed on females by others, either. After a lifetime of exposure to societal expectations, many women feel guilty about missing baby’s first steps, the musical recitals, important sports games, and high school graduation.
To overcome this, Sheryl Sandberg says it’s vital for women to choose the right life partner in order to be successful at home and at work. Condoleezza Rice and other prominent women chose to remain single so that they could devote their lives to career and public service. Slaughter, whose husband assumed the primary parenting role while she was in Washington, intentionally took control of her life and expectations. As Dean of Woodrow Wilson School, she defined the schedules, making sure that she was free to share dinner time with family as well as attend those school functions.
No matter who you are, male or female, there will always be obstacles to achieving success. It’s true that women are faced with specific gender-based hurdles, and that can be frustrating enough to want to quit, but none of these barriers are insurmountable. Empowering yourself to succeed doesn’t mean you have to follow the well-traveled path, it just means you have to stay true to yourself and your passion.
And fortunately in this digital age, you can always find role models online, whether that means following other businesswomen like Eventbrite co-founder Julia Hartz or Disney CFO Christine McCarthy on Twitter or LinkedIn, listening to podcasts like Women Who Startup for and by female entrepreneurs, or reading inspiring books by women in business like Shark Tales: How I turned $1000 into a Billion Dollar Business by Barbara Corcoran or Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.
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