Image: Adobestock / Elnur

Image: Adobestock / Elnur

The world of startups may conjure a vision of professional go-getters, powered by purpose, a regular dose of lattes and fuelled by diversity to stimulate innovation.

In fact, entrepreneurship, particularly for female founders, can offer a chance to sidestep institutionalised hiring and promotion processes in environments where gender bias may still exist.

Yet, the latest research from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School discovered that female CEOs and founders still operate at a disadvantage in industries perceived as male-dominated when pitching for capital. The good news is they also found promising opportunities to correct the trend.

Quick Facts

  1. New research finds female venture CEOs are often penalised when pitching for capital in male-dominated industries.
  2. Researchers identified subconscious bias as the biggest factor for a ‘lack of fit’ effect.
  3. Experts say there are strategies that can reduce bias when pitching.

Read on for top strategies identified from UQ Business School and Women in Digital Founder to help remove bias when pitching to any industry.

From beer to cars – bias is a silent barrier

The study examined 522 ventures and investors across a range of industries including, beer and automotive realms. They discovered female CEOs were being held back by a phenomena researchers call ‘lack of fit’, which occurs when attributes perceived as important for success in a male domain (such as dominance) conflict with stereotypical ‘female’ traits.

Researcher and management expert at UQ Business School, Professor Tyler Okimoto says:

“ These days, the biases that persist are largely driven by subtle, subconscious preconceptions. Some investors may not even be aware they are discounting the contributions of a female pitching. ”

“ Funding ventures is an inherently risky proposition, so investors take every little shred of information they can to get a better sense of whether their investment is going to be worth it.

"Sometimes, this means making investment decisions based on ‘gut feeling’, but this could be hiding subconscious gender biases.”  

Read more: 5 leadership trends that will be more important than ever in 2021

Images: Adobestock / Cagkan & memorystockphoto

Vehicles workshop with people repairing cars

It is possible to override bias

Yet, the research found some encouraging results – it is possible to override bias!

“One of our most exciting findings was that sophisticated investors – ones who were accredited – actually showed significantly less bias than unaccredited investors,” says Tyler. “This suggests that training and experience do help to correct biases.”

The study results pose another question: as a CEO, business founder, capital raiser or someone who’s climbing the corporate ladder, how do you beat bias when pitching?

UQ Business School alumnus Holly Hunt (Bachelor of Business Management ’10, Graduate Certificate in Business Administration ’19) is no stranger to gendered hurdles. As the founder of Women in Digital and recruitment company Digital Talent Co, Holly relates to the research findings.

“I think it’s human nature to want to connect with familiar and trusted people, but often these networks are gendered – whether it’s an ‘old boys network’ or an ‘old girls network’ from high school or university.

“As someone who moved to Brisbane later in life, I personally had to work twice as hard to build my own network and crack those old networks,” reflects Holly.

“My advice is to consistently show up, figure out how to add value that others aren’t, and work twice as hard as your competition, regardless of gender.”

Image: Kaylene Biggs

Women in Digital founder Holly Hunt at the University of Queensland St Lucia campus.

Pitch Perfect

Holly and Tyler provide their four top tips for pitching to any industry or boss to beat bias:

1. Establish credentials and experience

“Break down what your background is, where your experience lines up to their need or business opportunity, how your expertise makes you perfectly positioned and why no-one else has that experience.

“By answering those points, you are helping cut through the bias with plain, simple and indisputable facts that will be hard for them to ignore,” says Holly.

2. Quantify your results and provide case studies – it is hard to argue with facts

“Develop case studies and data points to sell evidence and proven capability, this will enable you to clearly articulate how your past experience will benefit that prospective client, investor or boss,” says Holly.

Tyler agrees, “It’s important to recognise any potential assumptions that your investors might have of you that you can then quantify with results.”

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a hand writing with a pen on a post it note.

Image: Adobestock / sitthiphong

Image: Adobestock / sitthiphong

Female and male professionals sitting down in an interview room.

Image: Adobestock / ty

Image: Adobestock / ty

3. Plan ahead for bias assumptions and personalise accordingly

“It’s important to anticipate any potential bias that your investors might have of you and adapt in an authentic way,” Tyler says.

“For example, if you’re worried people in a particular industry might not see you as confident, adapt your style in a way that is still comfortable. Or, if you’re worried about stereotypes of competence for technical areas, really make sure you establish your credentials in that area and use the right jargon.”

4. Always answer the ‘What’s in it for me’ component

“People are ultimately self-serving, especially when it comes to voting with their wallets,” advises Holly. “If you can show them what’s in it for them and what they stand to gain and make it compelling – that certainly helps. As part of this process, identify their pain points or concerns are and how you solve their problems.”

Read more: Five clues to the origin of the gender pay gap and how to fix them

Final thought

Tyler says, “While gender assumptions still persist, the education of decision-makers is an important step in combatting bias.

“From a personal level, you can put your best foot forward when pitching to any industry or boss by helping them see past any ‘bias fog’ with evidence of your credibility and fit.”

image: Adobestock / Hyejin Kang

Image of glasses with the word 'BIAS' spelled out in dice underneath.

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