Innovation’s Inequality: How we view Women Entrepreneurs

The same entrepreneur might be described as young, promising, aggressive and sensible – or inexperienced, ill-tempered and not daring enough. A recent Swedish study has shown that female entrepreneurs are judged more harshly than their male colleagues, and that negative perceptions of a women at the helm leads to a negative perception of the business she’s steering. Ultimately, this means less financing for women-run businesses – a disparity that hinders not only the female entrepreneurs themselves, but also innovation and the growth of our society.

Let’s start by getting the background info straight: government venture capital is an important engine to drive innovation and growth, and one of the main financial sources for entrepreneurs. Venture capitalists can take bigger financial risks than banks, and therefore have the possibility to back entrepreneurs working in uncertain fields. Their support is vital for new ideas that could potentially be real game-changers.

A third of Swedish businesses are owned and run by women. However, they receive significantly less funding than male-run businesses – only between 13 and 18 % of the total government funding. A Swedish research group whose initial task was to study financial decision-making in the government venture capitalist (VC) groups, not to look at gender discourse, was surprised by how gender biased their data was.

The research group was listening in on closed-room discussions regarding applications for financial support from 125 entrepreneurs – 99 men and 26 women. They registered phrases used to describe the entrepreneurs, comments on the applicants’ looks, and the way the discussion evolved around each applicant.

What is the difference between inexperienced and promising? Or how about sensible and level-headed? Well, a person can be both at the same time, it’s all a question of how we describe – or perceive – things. A young entrepreneur might be both inexperienced and promising. But, if only one of those words is used, the image of the entrepreneur will become black or white. Positive or negative – promising or inexperienced?

When communicating, it is all a question of how we put things. The same message can be delivered in a thousand different ways. Depending on how we chose our words, we affect not only those we talk to, but also our own mindset. If you never talk about young women in the same terms that are used to describe entrepreneurs, you create a mental gap between the two that becomes hard to bridge.

The Swedish researcher group noticed that the venture capitalists questioned the female entrepreneurs’ credibility, experience and knowledge. When discussing the male applicants, they instead used stereotypical assumptions that fit into the traditional image of an entrepreneur. Some of the men were considered aggressive or arrogant, but in their case, these weren’t seen as negative traits. On the other hand, the more enthusiastic and excited women triggered discussions about eventual emotional weaknesses.

So what happened to the entrepreneurs who were included in the study? Well, 53% of the women had their application dismissed, compared to 38% of the men. Of the women who were actually rewarded financial aid, they received only 25% of what they asked for, compared to an average of 52% received by the male entrepreneurs. In short, this is a story that ends with a very tangible loss not only for female entrepreneurs, but for society at large.

Have a think about how we affect the future of girls and boys around us by the way we communicate, and how you might be participating in preserving old stereotypes about men and women, entrepreneurs or otherwise. How could we all work to broaden the traditional image of an entrepreneur?

Be #Bold4Her: Erasing Gender Norms

During this Tuesday’s sessions at the Women Deliver Conference I attended a plenary called “Be #Bold4Her on gender norms: What are we so afraid of?” where a panel of distinguished speakers were discussing the issue of gender norms. This was an interesting session in many ways, highlighting the different difficulties gender norms pose on especially women and girls – but also demonstrating how difficult it can be just to discuss about this issue.

That the issue of gender norms is a challenging, much debated and problematic topic is nothing new. This was also something that was evident during the panel, as speaker Dorothy Muroki (FHI 360 Chief of Party and CB-HIPP, Kenya) noted that the global north is already complete according to gender norms if you compare to the global south and the African countries as a response to a comment from Lenita Toivakka (Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Finland), who had said that Finland is one of the best countries in the world to be a mother. In response to Muroki, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (General Secretary, World YWCA) reminded the panel and audience of the fact that we actually need to learn from each other and not depend on just the developed countries.

So how come we so often discuss these topics in only the developing countries and not in the western world? As a young woman growing up in Sweden, I have faced daily struggles because of rigid and constraining gender norms. I am supposed to look in a certain way, wear certain clothes and act in certain forms – all in order to fulfill the norms about how a girl is expected to be.

Gumbonzvanda also said that a woman growing up and living in poverty is the most innovating woman that exists – because they have to be. I think this is an incredibly important thought. We often hear about projects in developing countries where women are able to flourish and broaden their skills and knowledge, and I think we all need to remind ourselves of the fact that all women and men around the world need to build bridges between  each other and work together on eliminating gender norms. Of course we have different problems in different parts of the world and some problems are worse than others, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inspire each other and learn from each other.

It is also important to encourage societies, individuals such as parents and educators, and also state actors to stand up against harmful gender norms – which can be a very challenging goal to achieve. Giving parents advice on how to raise their children is a difficult task, but we have to find ways to build dialogue and be able to discuss these challenging issues in a constructive manner – and help more people understand that breaking rigid and conservative gender norms is in the best interest of all of us.

I remember when a friend of my mother told me that she and her husband we’re always very cautious to not push traditional gender norms on their daughter. They let her wear whatever she felt comfortable with and wanted to prioritize that she could play and have fun rather than look nice. She came home from kindergarten one day when she was three years old and told her mom that the girls had started questioning why she wore pants and not dresses and why she was looking boyish. She told her mother that she didn’t felt pretty in her regular clothes anymore and that she instead felt like wearing a pink dress. While her mother felt that as long as the wish to wear a pink dress was coming from her daughter and not imposed by society on her, this is also an example of a situation where the society around her – namely her peers in kindergarten – were influenced by existing gender norms and had a preconceived notion of what girls and boys should or should not wear, only because of their gender. It might seem trivial – but it is not. It’s a symptom of a larger problem where we assign roles and expectations on girls and boys from a very young age that limit their opportunities not only in terms of what to wear and how to look, but in terms of what they want to study, what field of work they want to pursue, what skills they believe they possess or don’t have.

This is a typical example of how Sweden and all western countries also still have a long way to go to break rigid and harmful gender norms, both big and small. Society has a huge impact on how children perceive themselves, and it is our joint responsibility to strive to build societies where all children can strive and reach their full potential. As Gumbonzvanda said:

We need to empower each other and build bridges so that we together can eliminate gender norms.

We should not replace the existing gender norms with new ones, we should make sure to eliminate them and never look back. Every human being should be able to be, act and look however they want and feel comfortable with – despite what gender they identify with.

Girls’ Globe is present at the Women Deliver Conference, bringing you live content straight from the heart of the action. If you can’t be there in person, you can be a part of Women Deliver through the Virtual Conference, by hosting an event in your hometown, and by engaging online using #WDLive and #WD2016.














Remembering America’s Lost Women

Growing up in Pakistan, I was a rule breaker. I got in trouble for speaking my mind and making my own choices, two things good Pakistani women were not supposed to do. Until I broke a rule that could not be fixed or overlooked, falling in love with a Shia man, though I came from a Sunni home. In Pakistan, our families were at war, so we went to Canada. North America was my safe haven, a place I could make my life choices without fearing shame and violence.

America afforded me an escape from the fear of honor violence, the abuse thousands of women around the world experience for bringing dishonor to their families. This violence can take the form of physical, emotional or sexual assault, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

America was my safe haven, but, unbeknownst to many, it is not safe for everyone. Honor violence is not a problem relegated to countries like Pakistan; every year, thousands of girls in North America experience honor violence and even lose their lives to honor killings. Families – mothers, fathers and siblings – abuse, assault and even strangle, stab or shoot their daughters, wives and sisters for being too “Western” or “promiscuous,” refusing an arranged marriage or even just looking at a boy.

Many decades may have passed since I made trouble in Pakistan, but I remain a woman known for speaking her mind. And in my mind, this situation is intolerable and it must be stopped. There is no place in the United States and Canada for shaming and abusing women into submission, forcing them to marry men they do not want and live lives they do not choose. In 2014, I stood up, with eight other women, and we made the world listen with the award-winning documentary Honor Diaries, drawing attention to issues of honor violence in western cultures. Other films and movements have joined us and we have made incredible gains in policy and awareness. Task forces have been formed, data is being collected and, most importantly, paid attention to.

Unfortunately, there is still much more work to do. Forcing a woman into marriage remains legal in 43 states. Women are beaten and even burned with acid, but the nature of what they are experiencing all too often goes unnoticed. Honor violence is a hidden crime that is overlooked more than is conscionable.

Honor Diaries was one stepping stone towards justice and what is right, but now, we need your help to lay the next brick. We want to wake up the US and create a national day of memory for the victims of honor – those who have lost their lives in the name of “honor.” We have teamed up with Jasvinder Sanghera CBE from Karma Nirvana UK, who has succeeded in creating a national day of memory in the UK. We hope to create a national day of memory in the US on the same date, July 14th, uniting women and men across the globe in solidarity.

We can stand up and declare that enough is enough, this will not go on in my backyard. Shame and abuse in the name of culture and religion are not condonable, and we will not sit idly while they are wielded as weapons to destroy the independence and fierce inner beauty of these young American women. Because when we do nothing, they lose more than their independence. They lose their lives. Join us in creating change. Click here and petition US policymakers to institute a national day of memory.


The author, Raheel Raza, is an author, diversity consultant and activist for cultural diversity and interfaith harmony. Her mandate is “there is unity in diversity.”

The Young Women of Tutorial High

Walterine, Principal of Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Walterine, Principal of Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

I met Walterine during my Baltimore to Guyana layover in the Panama City airport. Seeing that I was reading a Guyana guidebook, Walterine, a proud Guyanese, excitedly sat down next to me and began asking about my trip and my plans while in Guyana.

​I explained to Walterine that I worked with Girls’ Globe and would be speaking with women and girls at Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC). Coincidentally (and serendipitously), Walterine worked as the principal of a local high school. Loving the Girls’ Globe mission, she invited me to visit her school and speak to her girls about women’s and girls’ empowerment.

Happily, I accepted.

Last week, I had the fantastic opportunity to work with 200 young women (aged 13-14) at Tutorial High School. Not only were students engaged and excited to share their ideas about gender equality, but they also were incredibly knowledgeable about gender-related issues.

FullSizeRenderAfter telling the girls a little bit about myself and about Girls’ Globe, I gave a brief introduction about why ensuring gender equality and empowering young girls is crucial for development – tackling topics like HIV/AIDS, family planning, economic security, maternal health, education, and more.

But I wasn’t there to talk. I was there to listen. I wanted to hear their perspectives on gender equality and empowerment.

At that point, I separated the class into several smaller discussion groups, giving each table a poster and a different question to answer.

A few of the questions included:

  • What is your favorite part about being a girl?
  • What are some of the challenges of being a girl?
  • Why is gender equality important to you?
  • What does empowerment mean to you?
  • What are some of the barriers to gender equality?
Classroom at Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Classroom at Tutorial High School; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

While the girls brainstormed their answers, I began to realize how daunting a task staying in school could be – not only due to outside factors, but to the school building’s infrastructure as well. The classroom was long and narrow, with only three dusty chalkboards, no erasers, and one piece of chalk. The room, when filled to capacity (as it was), didn’t allow for the vast majority of students to have a clear view of a chalkboard. Square holes dotted the walls, allowing a cool breeze to sweep across the room – a necessity for a school that lacks air conditioning in a tropical climate. However, as a consequence, outside noises easily distracted and students in the back struggled to hear. In such an environment, it would be easy for anyone to drift off, daydream, and fall behind, inevitably causing a snowball effect that could haunt the rest of your life.

Students share what empowerment means to them; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein
Students share what empowerment means to them; Image c/o Elisabeth Epstein

When the groups finished brainstorming, each group presented their answers to the entire class. I was blown away by the honesty and creativity of these young women. Students took on difficult topics and responded in various and equally impressive ways. Although each group was powerful in its own right, I have to admit I had a few favorites.

When asked the question “What does empowerment mean to you?”, Shannae, 13, responded with a poem:

Give but don’t allow yourself

to be used.

Love but don’t allow your

Heart to be abused.

Trust but don’t be naive.

Listen to others but don’t 

Lose your own voice…

Another group with the same question drew a cartoon of a man and a woman talking. The man asks the woman if he could touch her private parts. The woman responds, “No, but you can touch your own.” (At which point in the presentation, the room erupted in laughter.)

When describing the challenges of being a girl, one group had each group member trace her hand on the poster and, within the lines of her own hand, write a challenge. A heartbreaking question, these young women answered with strength and courage, proudly presenting their poster to the class.  Challenges listed included bullying, low self-esteem, boys, peer pressure, puberty, and not being wanted.

As expected, the favorite and most exciting question to answer was “What is your favorite part about being a girl?” Answers included a wide range of activities such as manicures and pedicures, exercising, listening to music, going to school, and more.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet these incredible and smart young women. After feeling the class’ energy and hearing their ideas, I am confident these girls are already on the path to success. And as much as I hope the girls learned a lot both from me and each other, I am positive that I learned a lot more from them.

I’ll soon be returning to Tutorial High to repeat this lesson with a younger class – and I can’t wait to see what they’ll teach me.