What makes a business feminist?
Updated: Mar 17
Maria Aspan, Senior writer at Fortune, wrote an insightful article on the seemingly unfair treatment of female founders in the start up world early December, which has continuously stayed on my mind this past month.
She starts by providing a background on the current funding situation for female-founded startups:
"Female founders have a track record of success—one 2018 BCG study found that women-owned businesses earn twice as much revenue per dollar invested as male-owned businesses do—but the overwhelming majority of investors shun them. Women-only founding teams received only 2.6% of all venture capital invested in startups in 2019, with Black women receiving less than 0.3% of VC in 2018 and 2019. Women who do get funding raise about a third of the amount that men do, on average, and are less likely to raise subsequent rounds. They also retain less equity in their companies, thus ceding more control to the investors who have the power to fire or protect them.
Female founder-CEOs run only 4% of the “unicorn” startups valued at more than $1 billion, according to Crunchbase. Which means that, proportionally, these successful venture-backed female founders are even more rare than female Fortune 500 CEOs, who currently run 7.4% of the country’s largest companies."
Aspan goes on to highlight how female founders are under much more scrutiny than their male counterparts, leading to women being forced to step down as CEOs or leaving their companies due to circumstances under which men would have easily been able to carry on.
What has stuck with me the most though is the ongoing narrative, which Aspan touches on, that a female founded company by default is often portrayed as a feminist company. This feminism is not only attributed to the company by the media but also by the female founders themselves.
Aspan highlights the cases of Tyler Haney, founder of the activewear company Outdoor Voices, and Audrey Gelman, founder of The Wing, who both used their pregnancies to position themselves as feminist spokeswomen proclaiming that women can "have it all" by being a young successful entrepreneur and being able to start a family at the same time.
But what makes a company feminist is not defined by who founded it but by its policies and procedures, what opportunities are given to women, how are they being supported, whether there is gender parity on all levels in the company and especially in decision-making positions.
What I mean by that is, if a company's founder and CEO can have a child without worrying about the effect on her future career (even though neither Haney nor Gelman's career took a good turn), what measures or policies does she put in place to ensure that the same goes for all the women in her company. How are mothers, who work part-time being supported? How does the company ensure that they don't get overlooked when it comes to promotions? Do they have an adoption leave policy in place for women, who can't or choose not to get pregnant? How are same-sex couples being supported?
Taking into account that the majority of funding goes to white women, another question to ask is: what measures are being implemented to ensure a diverse work force? If a female founder creates a company for (almost) exclusively white, cis, straight, able-bodied people, than this is not a feminist business in any way, shape or form.
As I've worked in the violence against women sector for the past four years, I'm also highly aware of the extend of sexual harassment in the work place and the impact violence against women has on their participation in the labour market. A feminist business should therefor also include policies that protect women from harassment and discrimination in the work place and ensure that there is an effective reporting system in place, so that women know where to go in case something does happen. Across the EU, just over one in five women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from either a current or previous partner and this number is rising during the Covid-19 related lockdown measures. Because of this it is important that every company offers domestic abuse policies including paid domestic abuse leave, such as the law implemented in New Zealand in 2018 stipulates.
Overall, there is to say that a business doesn't automatically become feminist by having a female founder or CEO. While it is great to have a women with such decision-making power it is about how she uses this power to support other women that defines a feminist business.