I just finished filling out yet another interview asking me to share “the biggest obstacle I have overcome as a female founder.” I answered the question as is expected in this moment of candor for women and, like letting someone in on a secret, talked about my insecurities and imposter syndrome- because this is 2019 and I feel pressure to “be empowered as a woman CEO to bring my whole self to the office.” But, I wondered, why am I always asked some version of this question?
To answer this, I went back and googled interviews from the early days of Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg, more recent articles from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, and interviews with Emily Weiss from Glossier. Where Mark and Stewart were asked almost exclusively questions about how they got somewhere, the vision of the company, and where they are going, sprinkled in with Emily’s questions were these same “obstacle questions” like “what don’t you think you do well? What do you think you need to improve on?”
These questions aren’t harmless. A study by Harvard Business Review looked at the effect of “promotion questions” like “tell me about your strengths” vs. “prevention questions” like “tell me about an obstacle“ and found that founders asked prevention oriented questions raised seven times less venture capital to grow their business than those asked promotion questions. Not surprisingly, and much like media, investors were much more likely to ask those questions of women than men.
This gap in perception of male and female founders isn’t just playing out on convention stages and in news articles: it’s also ever present in our social feeds. As I type this, a popular women’s work space I follow has a post proclaiming “you can’t take care of business if you don’t take care of you.” I have to wonder if in all our talk of empowerment and self care and vulnerability we aren’t actually tearing women founders down, publicly exposing their insecurities and creating unrealistic expectations that are impossible to meet.
Expectations for a female founder that you can simultaneously be building a high growth company but also take as much “me time” as you need to recharge, that you can maintain amazing friendships and an incredible sisterhood of other founders, date night with your significant other, maybe even kids. An expectation that you can tell the world all your failures, insecurities, struggles and emotions, but simultaneously project a confidence that attracts A players, strategic partners, and millions of dollars in funding for your business. And, while you’re doing all that, an expectation to wear a runway-ready outfit and be photographed working in your perfectly decorated office or coworking space to then post it on Instagram with hashtag #girlboss.
The reality is: that life is a myth. According to Forbes, for example, one of the key differentiators of successful startups is speed- that means building a company demands all your attention, it means canceled plans and unreturned texts and working on the weekends. It means making tough choices and sometimes having to let employees go. It means prioritizing your customers such that if they have a need you solve it, even in the middle of the night. It means days where you are too busy to shower. It means hours on airplanes that take you away from the people you love. This opinion may be unpopular, but I believe we’re hurting women founders by perpetuating the stereotype of the #girlboss founder that has it all.
The unfortunate twist is that often times, as women, we create these perceptions ourselves. We ask each other questions like “what is a weakness you had to learn to overcome” in our interviews out of a desire to help other women know that you don’t have to be perfect to start a company (in fact, the person interviewing Emily Weiss that asked about her failures as a CEO was a woman). We preach the importance of self-care because we so rarely have time for it and don’t want others to make the same mistakes. And, we celebrate the myth of the girlboss because we want desperately to have it all, even if we’re just holding on.
If a woman chooses to be an open book while building her company because it’s part of her brand, that can be powerful. But that is her choice and not the role of a journalist, blogger, panel host, or peer to ask her to share vulnerable or personal things that could ultimately hurt her business. Especially when it is not the expectation for her male counterpart. I have yet to see Jeff Bezos hop on Instagram Stories to share how he’s working to improve himself.
It’s time we flip the narrative. The way we help women rise is to shift the perception of what a female founder is — she’s not a girlboss, she’s the boss. Instead of work-life balance, let’s ask questions about how women grew their balance sheet. Instead of asking about obstacles, let’s talk about the experiments that led to positive outcomes. And, instead of self-care tips, let’s give women the tactical playbook they need to get funded, hire, increase their revenues and become self-made.
Lastly, if anyone does finally ask Mark Zuckerberg about his self-care routine, please send it to me so I can update this post. In the meantime, head over to www.joindough.com to discover the newest and best products made by women.