The Unique Challenges Faced by Women Entrepreneurs

All entrepreneurs face challenges, but women entrepreneurs have several additional obstacles to overcome. These four big hurdles can be addressed and tackled with a pragmatic approach.

Every entrepreneur faces challenges. As outlined in this great article Top 10 Challenges Today Faced by Entrepreneurs: Solved, many of the challenges are addressed with common sense solutions.  But there are unique challenges faced by women entrepreneurs that need to be further addressed.

These additional challenges faced by women entrepreneurs fall into 4 broad categories:

  • Acting outside social norms and stereotypes
  • Owning your competence
  • Lack of mentors and role models
  • Access to capital/investment

In general, our culture “hears” women differently than men. I’ve had a great deal of personal experience in this area (being a women entrepreneur myself) and I’ve observed this phenomenon innumerable times in senior management and board meetings. A woman offers a suggestion that “isn’t heard” and the same concept is then repeated moments later by a male colleague who is recognized for the excellent suggestion. (I will also add the caveat in a few of the cases I observed, a man did rightly point out his co-worker originated the suggestion, but this is unfortunately not always the case.)

Cultural expectations are deeply embedded and hard to overcome. As I explored this topic, the underlying cultural norms and expectations seemed to be at the source of each of the hurdles faced by women entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, there are simple, pragmatic solutions to overcome these challenges.

The Four Challenges Faced by Women Entrepreneurs

Acting Outside Social Norms and Stereotypes

As much as we may hate to believe it, culture often stereotypes characteristics by gender. Our brains seek patterns to make sense of situations and bring order. These patterns often lead to generalizations and a tendency toward stereotype-confirming thoughts. This phenomenon is also known as implicit bias. We may think we don’t fall prey to this common thinking pattern, but implicit bias often influences behavior so subconsciously, we don’t even recognize it happening.

In the recent Supreme Court case Pricewaterhouse v Hopkins, Ann Hopkins argued the firm denied her partnership because she didn’t fit the partners’ idea of what a female employee should look and act like. In this case, after hearing her argument, the Court agreed, Ms. Hopkins indeed didn’t fit the stereotype of demure, quiet, patient,well-coiffed woman who took a “course in charm school.” However, she was extremely well qualified to become a partner, frequently outperforming male counterparts.

A woman business owner standing in her shop, looking proud and accomplished.
Photo by Sarah Pflug

Implicit bias comes into play as our culture (spurred by the media) perceives a successful entrepreneur as a brash young man–usually a Harvard or Ivy League school dropout. Think of the typical Silicon Valley wunderkinds Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, for example. This stereotype creates additional hurdles for the woman entrepreneur, whether she’s working in tech, finance, or any other field. While our culture is certainly shifting and changing, as women move into more executive roles, female entrepreneurs are still judged with a harsher eye than their male counterparts.

Women frequently encounter questions no one would consider asking a man in a similar situation. These inappropriate questions often revolve around how they plan to juggle and handle the other roles in their lives. Yet, when we imagine asking a man how he will handle his responsibilities as husband or father in an interview, the picture is almost laughable. The mere thought of these questions directed at a man creates cognitive dissonance. We should, however, remember those types of questions, legal or not, seep into women’s lives regularly. In one of my own interviews, the interviewer asked, “How does your husband like having a part-time wife?” And, even more unimaginable–I attempted to answer!

There is a fine line when it comes to bucking stereotypes. It’s important to accept that blazing trails is a hard, slow process. The best course of action is to simply be yourself, accept yourself and be aware of this obstacle, especially in your own interactions with women entrepreneurs.

Owning Your Competence

Numerous studies, as well as personal experience, show women don’t promote themselves enough. Humility, meekness, and acceptance are all feminine qualities most of us were taught to embody (whether by our parents or society). Women are often taught it’s wrong to brag, boast, or come off as too forceful. Many of us are filled with self-doubt and shades of imposter syndrome. Even when we find success, we may feel we don’t deserve it, or we arrived there by a fluke.

Hillary Genga (founder and CEO of Trunkettes) says, “You made it to where you are through hard work and perseverance, but most importantly, you are there.” Own it.

According to an Inc. magazine article, 30 Surprising Facts about Female Founders, as well as numerous other studies, businesses experience higher financial performance when women are on the Board of Directors or in Senior Management roles. Many theorize this fiscal success relates to women’s tendency toward fostering teamwork as a leader. I would also presume women’s high level of organization due to their additional roles outside of work is a factor in their success as well.

Recognize the value you bring and don’t be afraid to talk about that value. As Molly McDonald (founder and CEO of The Mobile Locker) says, “When I talk about the company… I always find myself saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’…I am making an effort to own what I’ve accomplished.” You can own what you’ve accomplished as a women entrepreneur, too.

Lacking Mentors and Role Models

Two businesswomen working together on a project.
Photo by Matthew Henry

According to Inc. almost half of female founders say a lack of advisors and mentors limits their professional growth. Yet, successful companies now recognize the importance of women in leadership roles. Women offer unique approaches and tend to be thoughtful, emotionally intelligent leaders. Supporting women both at the top and on their way to the top is very important for their success and the success of the company. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of mentorship programs for women and because there are fewer female business leaders, as women move up the ladder they may find their selection of peers getting thinner and thinner.

According to speaker, author, and Women in Global Business Ambassador Margie Warrell, there are several ways to reverse this leaky pipeline of female mentorship. First, it is important for women to learn to speak up and aren’t afraid to ask for coaching and mentorship. With the media’s focus on the upwardly mobile, young male entrepreneur, women may look around and wonder if they’re alone in their position. The truth is, there are many opportunities out there for young female proteges, but it may mean reaching outside your office (and even your industry).

Fortunately, there are there are also many forums and networking groups specifically directed at women. Meetup groups, women’s networks, and professional groups are often city-based and a simple Google search will yield opportunities in your area.

The other solution is to connect with coaching and mentoring programs in your industry or designed for your particular position. President, entrepreneur, and leadership groups may not be gender-specific, but they offer a chance to mingle with different individuals who are facing similar challenges. Fortunately, we’re past the days where networking was a “boy’s only” club (but I remember as a young professional, standing outside a downtown club because I couldn’t enter as a woman—it wasn’t that long ago).

Having Access to Capital

The cultural mores and expectations discussed above lead to different questions in the interview process. Both men and women tend to fall into the same patterns when they’re interviewing potential candidates. The interviewer asks questions of men focused on how they “will win.” Women are asked instead how they will “avoid losing.” The difference is subtle but distinct. Men, therefore, respond by focusing on the opportunities, whereas women’s answers tend to be limitation and problem-based. Women can overcome this obstacle by responding with opportunities despite the frame of the question (and interviewers should ensure they aren’t injecting implicit bias in their interview by framing all questions the same).

At the root of the interview questions and many of these patterns is a question of accessing capital. Women entrepreneurs often start businesses providing services and/or products focused on issues faced by women. They consider the needs of both genders equally or veer more toward female needs. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, may approach opportunity differently. Men are focused on winning and women are worried about not losing—this mentality is a safe way to play but successful entrepreneurship is often about confidence (and acceptance of risk).

In a world where decisions are drawn not only from “hard data” but also the comfort level that the lender/investor draws from the entrepreneur, the ability to fully understand the product and achieve a comfort level is limited when the decision-makers are predominately men. It’s much more challenging for women to sell a women’s product or service to male investors, no matter how savvy the research or great the need. This phenomenon helps explain why men start businesses with 6 times the capital of women.

As a women entrepreneur, it’s important you network with investors of all stripes. Don’t limit yourself to male-only investors, but don’t rely on female-owned businesses as your sole support either. Make sure your network includes all decision-makers. Als,o consider all other investor options – family wealth funds and crowdfunding are alternative options when regular investment channels fail.

Overcome Women Entrepreneur Challenges by Building Your Support Network

Three women dressed in business professional clothes walking and smiling with each other
Photo by Sarah Pflug

As women entrepreneurs and business leaders, it’s a bit disheartening (and yes, even lonely) when you examine these challenges. It’s important to remember we’ve certainly come a long way and society continues to grow, shift, and realize the value of a diverse workforce. The opportunities for women have grown by leaps and bounds over the past fifty years and they continue to grow today.

You may have heard success breeds success and it’s not what you know but who you know. Find a group of like-minded people and role models to build a network that supports your success. This group needs to know you and your business. Pick the right people—those who you can work with, who you admire and respect. These members of your team will become powerful allies to help you overcome the fear of failure, encourage your growth, hold you accountable, and smooth out the rough spots as you face the challenges mentioned here.

Remember, being a woman also gives you strength. This is where you can shine. Women outperform men in innovation, calculating risk, and playing the long game. We’re organizers, planners, and we know how to juggle plenty of tasks at once. Women bring power, emotional intelligence, and insight to the table—which is why we see many statistics showing companies are more successful with a diverse leadership which includes women.

As a women entrepreneur, being aware of these specific hurdles (and I am sure several of these aren’t new to you) better sets expectations and avoids the “is this real or is it just me?” feeling. You aren’t alone, and don’t worry—you can do it!


Featured image by Matthew Henry. All photos licensed for use via Burst.

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