Unfortunately, it’s no secret that language is subtly but dangerously gendered. Women are “bossy” while men are “assertive.” Women are “past their prime” while men are “distinguished” and “experienced.”
Obviously there is not some overhead conspiracy against women, but there remains a subconscious bias in the way that genders are discussed and the list of tilted adjectives goes on.
A recent study by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) was designed to examine the financial decision making process for government venture capitalists in Sweden, who take tax revenue and strategically invest it back into the Swedish economy by funding entrepreneurial innovations. But in the course of analyzing the recorded conversations of 125 decisive, closed-room meetings, HBR uncovered an unsettling, unquestionable disparity between the language used to evaluate male and female entrepreneurs.
Over a two year period, HBR observed, recorded, and transcribed the kinds of language seven VCs (five men and two women) used to talk about male and female entrepreneurs.
The transcriptions underwent a meticulous translation process into English, and were then analyzed to pull out words and phrases used to describe the entrepreneurial hopefuls, including comments on appearance and capability.
Using these comments, HBR developed profiles of the average male and female entrepreneur, as described by the government VCs. The gender bias nothing but striking.
The average male entrepreneur sounds pretty great. He is:
- “young and promising”
- “arrogant, but very impressive competence”
- “aggressive, but a really good entrepreneur”
- “experienced and knowledgeable”
- A “very competent innovator and already has money to play with”
- “cautious, sensible, and level headed”
- “extremely capable and very driven”
Hard to say no to that entrepreneur’s business! And what about that female entrepreneur over there? Well, she’s . . .
- “young, but inexperienced”
- Lacking “network contacts and in need of help to develop her business concept”
- “enthusiastic, but weak”
- “experienced, but worried”
- “good looking and careless with money”
- “too cautious and does not dare”
- Lacking “ability for venturing and growth”
To summarize, men are competent, knowledgeable, sensible, and capable. Women need help, and they’re weak, good looking, careless, and too cautious. Positive qualities in men become negatives in women. And for the love of money, why does it matter what she looks like??
HBR points out that this sub-conscious gendered language isn’t just a bad sign for gender equality – it’s also a bad sign for the economy, since bias could be preventing the best ventures from getting the funding they deserve.
In Sweden, about a third of all businesses are owned and run by women, but female-owned businesses receive only 13 to 18 percent of all government venture capital funding.
Thankfully, after HBR presented their bonus findings to the government VCs, new regulations were put in place to help combat that damaging bias. But we still have a long way to go before women business owners are both fairly funded and fairly represented – bias creates major inertia, often discouraging disadvantaged groups for going after their goals in the first place. Raising awareness is the first step, but really, we’re aware already! Let’s do something about it.