I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend while networking on LinkedIn lately. Around last year, I began reaching out to connections who self-identify as “entrepreneurs” and “founders.” I knew in advance that my diverse network was predominantly comprised of female professionals and entrepreneurs, yet around 90% of the people who turned up in my search results were white men. Not even the entrepreneurial women I knew personally were showing up. Where’d they go? What happened to them?
Some of it may come down to the demographics of LinkedIn users, the idiosyncrasies of the platform’s search algorithm, or some other factors unknown to me. But one issue appeared to be language: On closer inspection, I noticed that many of the women I encountered don’t describe themselves on LinkedIn as entrepreneurs or founders, even though that’s exactly what they are. And that’s a problem.
The Keyword Gap
Many women on LinkedIn start businesses from the ground up, but many don’t include keywords in their profiles that reflect that. In fact, I’ve witnessed this same problem across multiple social media platforms and in different entrepreneurial groups where women gather online. Instead, they call themselves “self-employed,” or say that they “work for” their company. Or else they describe their work (“marketing specialist”) or come up with cutesy or creative titles–none of which convey business ownership.
When I ask women about this, they often tell me they’re saving the message of ownership for when they feel like they’ve “earned it.” Undoubtedly, some simply underestimate the importance of embracing titles like “founder” and “entrepreneur.” But the fact is that many of these women are clearly successful in what they do, meaning it’s not an issue of competence. Instead, it’s the so-called “confidence gap” applied to entrepreneurship.
There’s a lot of conversation, research, and advice out there about how to address the confidence gap, but when it comes to how women represent themselves, there’s one key thing to remember: If you’re going to be audacious enough to start a business, then be audacious enough to make sure the world knows it’s yours.
What We Call Ourselves Matters
There’s little upside to not making clear that you built the organization you now run and that you’re subsequently responsible for your own success and failures. In these contexts, “modesty” does more harm than good–and not just to yourself but also to other women entrepreneurs and the girls who will one day join us as future entrepreneurs. We need to own our positions of power, proudly and publicly. Here’s why:
You get to define how the world sees you. You can set others’ expectations simply by defining yourself and what you are. If you show up as the boss, you’re more likely to be treated as such (and when you aren’t, you get to walk away knowing that they’ve lost out). This in turn legitimizes both you and your business.
Being seen means being heard. And I mean that literally: Search engines can’t find you when you don’t have the right keywords in your profile. Researchers who crawl the web for data are missing your voice and presence. Strategic partnerships are skipping over you. Contract possibilities are passing you by. You’re missing out on countless opportunities you’ll never even realize are within reach.
Being visible normalizes female founders. Normalizing women as entrepreneurs is crucial because the gatekeepers are overwhelmingly men. Women make up 40% of new entrepreneurs, but only 17% of funded startups are headed by women, and only 2% of all VC funding goes to women. Gatekeepers need to get used to seeing us, and we need to be seen to get equal access to funding, press, resources, contracts, and more.
It’s 2018, and despite annual proclamations for the past several decades by various media outlets that “this is the year of women,” the needle of progress inches forward slowly. There’s much talk about women needing access to funders, mentors, and networks–all of which is true. There’s justifiable consternation that the accustomed gatekeepers stick to what’s familiar to them, and that that often means prioritizing white men. But while “leaning in” might not always cut it, there’s still an urgent need for women to step into spaces where opportunities exist.
And one of the absolutely easiest ways for women entrepreneurs start is to proudly add “founder” to your LinkedIn profile. Because words do matter.
Natalie is an entrepreneur and activist who’s passionate about social impact and human empowerment. She is the founder of CEO Toolkits, which offers courses and resources to help entrepreneurs master their businesses, as well as the CEO of OC360, a collaboration of change agents who aim to connect the world to social good.https://www.oc360.co/