In leadership positions, women’s voices are not typically judged the same as men’s. Subtle and not so subtle unconscious biases of influence start from how people are perceived.
A study of Q&As at the startup competition TechCrunch Disrupt NYC found that male and female entrepreneurs get asked different questions from VCs. Investors tend to ask men about the potential for gains, such as: “Do you think your target market is a growing one?” Prevention questions, typically directed at females, have a cautious spin and sound like: “Is it a defensible business where other people can’t come into the space and take a share?”
This puts most female founders on the defensive from the start. For every additional prevention question asked, that startup lost about $3.8 million in funding. I now coach my female founder clients to listen for prevention questions and respond in a different way. TechCrunch Disrupt entrepreneurs who did this raised about $7.9 million more in funding.
Only 2.2% of VC funding raised in the U.S. went to female founded companies. These biases exist around the globe, the only difference is that investors in the EU focus less on a founder’s storytelling and more on the startup’s traction, according to Giulia Imperatrice, an expert in programs for international entrepreneurs. “To tackle the unconscious bias, female founders around the world are pitching to women-led funds,” she said.
Even when pitching to women led funds, female entrepreneurs tend to settle for lower valuations in contrast to male founders, who tend to overvalue their companies’ worth, admits Alejandra Vasquez, the co-founder of Wondertech, a female led ecosystem in Colombia.
The male voice of tech world
I recently presented at WebSummit in Rio on pitching in the U.S. The startup scene in Brazil was not so different from what I knew in NYC: the room was overwhelmimgly male.
Tech has historically been a male-dominated field, and that culture also impacts the communication style, which naturally is skewed in favor of male voices.
We are usually told that lower tones and deep resonant voices are the desired voice of influence. I have read articles that claim men with more resonant tones make more money. I have worked with many female leaders who want to be coached to develop those deeper tones.
Women want to become “less wordy”, “speak with a lower pitch”, and “present with less emotion”. Not that these are bad goals to achieve, but sometimes the motivation behind them inadvertently fosters our idea of the accepted “voice of leadership” in the U.S.
More often than not, that voice tends to be male. But people are increasingly looking for empathy and warmth in communication. We need founders who are tackling problems from a different lens that might equate to a more female way of thinking.
Don’t be afraid to show some empathy if you are creating a solution precisely in need of that. A feminine touch is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s often an asset necessary for trust and connection. However you must still answer with a voice that says “I am confident in my answers”.
How to build confidence
Even the most seasoned and experienced female executives and founders come to me and say, “I need to sound more confident!” as if confidence had one voice.
One thing that seems to hold true in every pitch contest I’ve been to and hosted: Confidence wins. You should be confident both in your presence and voice. What does confidence look like when pitching?
In the U.S., volume is your friend. It creates energy. However, it’s also true that people from other parts of the world find loud voices to be rude or arrogant.
If you’re uncertain whether you’re actually being heard, record yourself. Listen again and again. Ask yourself: Do I vary my voice? Am I using enough volume to not only be heard but to get investors wanting to hear more when I talk about my business? Am I dropping the ends of a sentence?
For some female founders, I have them put a hand on their chest, feel the vibration of sounds like “AH” and then speak from there. If you are getting louder but pushing your voice way up, where you can’t feel any vibration, then work on connecting your voice to your body. You’d be amazed at how much your voice quality will change.
Practicing in a networking environment before entering pitch competitions can help to build confidence. Leisa Witt, founder of Witt Collective, a knowledge management company, encourages female founders to get out there. Originally from Germany, she knows that not everyone embraces the concept of small talk. Leisa advises to “have a plan to speak with specific people in the room to gain momentum.”
Most of us are complex and have many styles that come out depending on the topic and setting. Ask yourself how you want to be perceived by the audience. Develop your own style, whatever that might be. Your efforts might go further than you can imagine, and might contribute to changing the way women are perceived in Tech.
About Lisa Patti
Lisa M. Patti M.S. is the communication coach and founder at C3Speech, helping international founders improve the clarity of their messages, speech and voice as well as cultural awareness. Lisa has been working with international professionals, students and entrepreneurs for more than 20 years. Her clients range from international accelerator programs such as Starta VC and Techstars, to individuals from PWC, Columbia University, and Gunderson Dettmer. Lisa recently joined a team of partners launching Elpis Labs, the foundation that supports women entrepreneurs through mentorship, resources, and a community to foster their success.