In my marketing business, my target market is the startup, mostly tech space. I love working with entrepreneurs and making magic happen with them for their business.
Because the startup space is so male-dominant, I tend to have mostly male clients – and I like so many other female founders have tales to tell of sexual harassment!
We have read to death about sexual harassment in the workplace. The picture that is often painted is that of the pervy HOD or the MD calling you, the PA, into his office for awkward, pointless meetings, where he sits too close to you or makes inappropriate comments or smacks your bum on the way out.
Often women do not speak out about sexual harassment in the workplace for fear of being ostracized or losing their jobs. Unfortunately, women entrepreneurs do not speak out about it either.
The perception is that we are in a place of power, being the founders of our companies and can therefore pick and choose who we work with.
The reality is that we are often desperate to make sales raise funds or to keep a large client happy and thus tolerate inappropriate bullshit in order to keep the sales funnel full. Somehow being an established woman in business with a portfolio of great work and a legacy for delivering is not enough to keep certain male clients satisfied.
Whether it’s a subtle brush of your leg during a meeting or an inappropriate comment about your looks or body passed about over a strategy session or even a more outright proposition, the startup world is no different from the outside male-dominated world.
If we for one minute thought there was an equal playing field between founders and CEOs merely because we climbed to the top of the food chain together, we were so incredibly wrong. If we were ‘equal’, there would not be separate business awards for men and women and female-focused support and networks in business.
Remember Justin Mateen stating that having a young female co-founder at Tinder “makes the company seem like a joke” and “devalues” it?
Or a 20-something Twitter employee saying to a Forbes writer, “You should really hire a nerdy looking dude to represent your company publicly. You know, to make up for your looks.”
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Whether it’s sexism or sexual harassment, the idea that women are ‘lesser’ entrepreneurs than our male counterparts is still a reality in this game.
Or perhaps Uber is a better example of the volatile ecosystem that is the startup tech space for women? My experience is not unique in any way, Silicon Valley is full of stories of women entrepreneurs desperate to make it and unsure of how to navigate the landscape of groping men.
The media covers big cases of sexual harassment but where does one voice her day to day incidents of sexism? Because they’re comparatively low in number, women founders end up being termed ‘eye candy’ or a mere ‘distraction’ for the company. A startup by a female founder is not taken seriously and they are often treated like second-hand performers.
My recent experience saw me take action and seek legal counsel on my next move. It has been an eye opening, kind of outer body experience, regurgitating my story to rooms of men. I can count the men on a few fingers (not a full hand) whose first and natural reactions were “bastard” “bring him down”.
The rest responded with, “But what did you do the first time it happened?” “Hhmmm… it’s a tough one.” and my all-time favourite, “Think of your business though, you don’t want to come off as whiny and deter people from doing business with you”.
As a Muslim woman who chooses not to wear the headscarf, I will also admit to being questioned by a fellow Muslim woman (hijab wearing) and advised that these kinds of things tend to happen when:
a) you work outside of your home
b) when you choose not to cover yourself in traditional Islamic wear.
These men (and woman) seem to forget that we as women are conditioned from such a young age to accept sexism and sexual harassment and abuse as part of our daily lives.
Having a group of men casually comment in a meeting about our legs is actually quite normal. Knowing that when you get out of your desk to grab a coffee down the road, you will be wolf-whistled by a guy smoking on the the corner or a bunch of guys driving by in a bakkie – after all this has been happening to us since we were 13!
The reality is because of this conditioning, something more subtle like sexual harassment rather than a sexual attack, especially in a country like South Africa where rape is a part of our daily lives, sometimes we are not clear about what just transpired until it’s been a number of occasions and you have a moment to sit alone with your thoughts. And by then, unfortunately, explaining your experience to a lawyer or friend raises eyebrows about you as a ‘legitimate enough victim’.
I don’t have the answers on how to make this global issue miraculously disappear, but I do hope that through the network that I have set up, BeingBoss, female founders can at least feel like there is a group or space where they are heard and not questioned.