It can be subtle, like failing to make eye contact with a woman business owner but engaging in animated conversation with her male co-owner. Or more blatant, like asking an owner who's seeking investor money whether she plans to have children.
Many women business owners say they've encountered gender discrimination from potential investors, customers and employees who don't grasp the reality that a woman can be a CEO, trial attorney or own a technology company.
Many women are taken aback at first and don't know how to respond to comments or behavior they find insulting, intrusive and demeaning. But over time, they find strategies to deal with bias.
When Amanda Bradford speaks at technology conferences and forums, discussing coding and algorithms, some men tell her afterward, “this is something I didn't expect when you opened your mouth.” They assume that because she's a woman, she's the marketer, not the inventor of The League, a dating app.
When Bradford sought funding for her San Francisco-based company, “I often felt like I didn't get the credit for having the technical experience,” she says.
Women business owners are not immune, even as it's more and more likely a customer or potential investor will find themselves speaking to a woman if they want to see the boss. The number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. has grown to more than 10 million from 5.4 million in 1997.
Susan Duffy, executive director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, says that while women owners are more visible and accepted than decades ago, “someone still assumes that if you're the CEO, you're the white guy in the suit or the white guy in the hoodie.”
Potential customers or investors often assume that Gabby Slome and Alex Douzet, two of the co-founders of dog food manufacturer Ollie, are married. Outsiders can't seem to get their minds around the fact that Slome, who's married to someone else, could be running a business without her husband, or without him bankrolling her.
“They think, he must have funded me. They don't understand that I'm doing this independently of him,” says Slome.
Slome has learned to turn an uncomfortable moment into a pitch about Douzet and herself.
“I tell them, we met because of shared business interests, and our joint abilities and skill sets make us good business partners,” she says.
Duffy, who oversees Babson's mentoring programs for women entrepreneurs, says gender discrimination and how to deal with it are frequently discussed at program meetings.
“Have your antenna up so you know it when you see it and have two or three ready-to-go behaviors in your back pocket to manage it in the moment for the best outcome,” Duffy says.
Sally Strebel has noticed that when her male business partner leaves her side at meetings, “other men will approach and ask me a question about my company and then tell me how they are building something better and that I should watch out.” Strebel, co-founder of Pagely, a website hosting company based in Tucson, Arizona, realizes they want to intimidate her.
She's also been in meetings where she wasn't given the chance to speak. For a while, she was silent. But as time went on, she realized that she has the right to speak.
“I have more power. I have a voice now. I can actually say, 'that's not OK,'” Strebel says.
Noushin Ketabi has noticed that when she and her husband and business partner Rob Terenzi meet with male executives, they speak to him and don't make eye contact with her. They seem to perceive him as the ultimate decision-maker in their coffee company, Vega.
Ketabi responds by acting as an equal co-owner of the Santa Barbara, California-based firm, speaking knowledgeably and authoritatively. She also uses humor to try to ease the awkwardness.
Julia Fowler confronted the potential investor who asked whether she planned to have children.
“The question itself was extremely inappropriate and personal that had nothing to do with the company,” says Fowler, co-founder of Edited, a retail technology company.
At first Fowler was taken aback. Then, at a second meeting, she raised the issue.
“I said to the partner who had asked, 'I want to understand why this is important to you.' He didn't have an explanation,” Fowler says. Edited got the money.