Since COVID-19 elbowed its way in as a long-standing, unbidden guest, more women are losing their jobs than men. Even in our woke-ass times—we can’t wait to quit you, 2020—they’re still making reduced wages and taking on the greater brunt of childcare. For women and nonbinary entrepreneurs who are launching, funding, and growing their companies, the business landscape has been just as brutal. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to sound the alarm of gender disparity in the entrepreneurial world, an alarm we have heard but have yet to heed in earnest, but here we are. Again.
The obstacles for women, especially those of color, are—wait for it!—systemic, which journalist and professor Susanne Althoff investigates in her book Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back. They persist because the current start-up world was engineered by and for white men. Because white men will always do for white men. Must be nice. Through interviews with over a hundred founders across the country and in all industries, Althoff paints a picture of an entrepreneurial system rife with bias and discrimination, where women receive less than 3 percent of this country’s venture capital, struggle to find mentors in the wake of #MeToo, and are dismissed as “mompreneurs.”
The effects of this unequal system are felt by all of us: a weaker economy, fewer jobs, and less innovation. Althoff explains how more equitable structures in business and entrepreneurship will benefit all people, not just those hoping to fund a startup. These facts about gender inequality reinforce what desperately needs to change, because we’ll need women and nonbinary business leaders at the helm after we’ve kicked out COVID. The worst. House guest. Ever.
Fact 1: Women in this country are opening businesses at a remarkable rate—they went from owning 5 percent of all firms in 1972 to 42 percent in 2019—but dig deeper and the situation seems a lot less cheery. Women-owned businesses were responsible for just 8 percent of all employment and 4 percent of total revenues in 2019. Hitting $1 million or more in annual revenue is an important early marker of success for a company, yet in 2018 a mere 2 percent of women-owned firms had this distinction.
Fact 2: In 2019, start-ups founded only by women pulled in just 2.7 percent of the total venture capital investment in the United States. Women of color receive an even tinier slice.
Fact 3: By the end of 2017, only thirty-four Black women entrepreneurs and fifty-eight Latinx women entrepreneurs had raised at least $1 million in venture funding. Not in one year. For all time. Black women took in a mere 0.0006 percent of all venture funding from 2009 to 2017. There is some hope, though: the number of Black women–led start-ups more than doubled from 2016 to 2017.
Fact 4: The number of companies owned by Black women jumped 50 percent from 2014 to 2019, while it increased 41 percent for women who are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 40 percent for Latinx women, 37 percent for Asian American women, and 26 percent for Native American and Alaska Native women. Yet there’s a troubling component: companies owned by women of color tend to pull in less money. In 2019, the average revenue for a business owned by a woman of color was $65,800, while it was $218,800 for a white woman.
Fact 5: In 2010, the Center for Talent Innovation reported that a whopping 89 percent of “highly qualified” women lack a sponsor and 68 percent have no mentor. A 2009 Catalyst survey of lawyers showed that 62 percent of women of color say the lack of an influential mentor holds them back.
Fact 6: In 1979, women-owned businesses received a mere 0.2 percent of federal prime contracting dollars, and at the time of the hearings in 1988, that number had inched up to about 1 percent. (Today, the federal government’s goal is to award at least 5 percent of procurement dollars to women-owned businesses—yes, equality is a slow march.
Fact 7: And women are good at running companies. According to research by the Boston Consulting Group and Mass Challenge, women-led start-ups make seventy-eight cents for every dollar of investment they receive, compared to thirty-one cents for companies led by men.
Fact 8: In a 1965 Harvard Business Review survey titled “Are Women Executives People?” only 35 percent of male executives said their attitude toward women in management was favorable and just 27 percent said they’d feel okay working for a woman.
Fact 9: According to a 2018 survey of women founders by Inc. and Fast Company magazines, 53 percent of respondents experienced harassment or discrimination while running their companies.
Fact 10: In her book Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century, historian Edith Sparks notes that about 40 percent of women working in this era experienced sexual harassment on the job.
Fact 11: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in households with a mother and father who both work full-time, the woman on average assumes 60 percent of the childcare and 60 percent of the household work.
Fact 12: Researchers from the University of Southern California discovered that when small business owners appeared in films rated PG-13, PG, and G, only 5 percent were played by women characters. For corporate executives featured in family movies, a mere 3 percent were played by female characters.
About Susanne Althoff
Susanne Althoff is a veteran journalist and an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, where she teaches publishing entrepreneurship and women’s media. She’s also served as advisor to women-led start-ups. Before joining Emerson in 2015, Althoff worked for 22 years as a magazine editor, including 6 years as the editor in chief of the Boston Globe Magazine. Her writing has appeared in WIRED, the Boston Globe, and other publications. Connect with her on Twitter @SusanneAlthoff and at susannealthoff.com.