These women entrepreneurs faced gender bias from their own employees

In a survey of female founders conducted by Fast Company and Inc., some women revealed that they faced discrimination from the people they hired. Here’s what they had to say.

These women entrepreneurs faced gender bias from their own employees
[Photo: Vasilina Popova/Getty Images]

This summer, Fast Company and Inc. conducted a survey of women entrepreneurs, in which we asked nearly 300 female founders about their business goals, their politics, and if they have faced bias. More than half the women said they had encountered some form of bias or harassment as female founders. It came as little surprise that nearly 60% were on the receiving end of discriminatory behavior from investors or bankers, while more than 50% experienced the same from vendors or suppliers. In other cases, founders felt potential partners or clients showed a gender bias in their interactions.


But one finding that stuck out was that 26% of respondents claimed the discrimination had come from their own employees and subordinates. We talked to some of those women about how bias from employees can manifest in the workplace–and undermine their authority as leaders.

You may not get the same respect as male employees–even as CEO

Some female founders find they don’t get the same respect as senior-level male employees—even as CEO of the company. “I purposely create a diverse and very open atmosphere at my company, where people are really encouraged to speak up and bring up issues and have healthy debate,” says one founder and CEO, who runs a fashion startup. Her leadership is largely comprised of women, but earlier this year, she brought on a man as her president and chief operating officer. In that time, she has already found that some vendors and potential partners assume he must be the CEO. She has also found that employees treat the two of them differently.

“It’s mostly become clear to me now that I have a senior man on my team,” she says. “It’s easier for him to hold people accountable without getting a lot of pushback.” Senior male employees seem to have the authority “to speak business truths,” she says. But when, for example, she tells an employee they have fallen short of targets, it may be questioned or perceived as what she, specifically, thinks or feels—not something that is simply true.

As for whether male and female employees treat her differently, she’s not sure. “That’s the problem with bias—you can’t put your finger on it,” she says. “I think the women and the men are much more willing to just take a unqualified direction from their male boss than from me.”

Your employees may expect more from you

Bias can also take the form of employees—men and women alike—imposing higher, gendered expectations on a female boss. Women are often expected to assume the role of caretaker in the workplace. “Exhibiting nurturing characteristics is very important for a female leader,” says the fashion CEO. “It’s required. I think with men, it’s just nice to have.”

Perhaps some women demand more from female bosses because they had bad experiences in male-dominated workplaces. In an industry like fashion, employees are even more likely to have “horror stories” about previous employers. “I have some employees who specifically wanted to work for a woman and have left companies where they were being manipulated or harassed by their male boss,” the CEO says. “They purposely came to a woman-owned company because they wanted to escape that culture. I think that is where women bosses can really make a difference.”


You may face bias or discrimination during job interviews

It’s not just employees who may be biased against female founders. Some women said they felt it even in interviews with job candidates—say, when they directed answers to technical questions at the man in the room.

One tech entrepreneur, many of whose employees are based in India, said she faced frequent discrimination from the people who worked for her, in part because her husband was her cofounder. Some employees wouldn’t look her in the eye, she said, while others assumed her husband was really the one in charge and might, for example, request that he sign for a delivery. During trade shows and job interviews, people often assumed her husband was the one with a technical background. One job applicant, she says, would only address emails to her husband during the interview process, even after he explicitly asked that she be included on all emails.

Your employees may offer unsolicited performance reviews

Sometimes, employees don’t just expect more from their female employers; they also feel free to share feedback or offer recommendations for what they could do differently. Julia Rohan, who runs a pet care business in Chicago, says a former employee did exactly that when he saw her helping out with a customer’s newborn twins. “I was very sensitive to the needs of new moms because I had a terrible postpartum situation in my life, and I really got by with the support of friends and family,” Rohan says. The customer had become a good friend, so Rohan was at her house one day helping out when her employee came by.

“He came in and saw me taking care of babies,” she says. “I was not on the clock, nor did I feel he deserved an explanation. It’s my business. But after he saw that, I noticed some glares, and then later that night, I received an email from him that said he felt my place was either with my son or in the office, but not bouncing customers’ babies on my hips.” Rohan says she couldn’t have imagined him saying that to a man. “I felt put in my place by an employee,” she says. After that, she didn’t feel comfortable having one-on-one meetings with him and would usually have a manager in the room; eventually, the employee left the company of his own volition.

Christina Stembel, who runs a San Francisco-based florist startup, says she is often the recipient of unsolicited feedback. “I have male employees who regularly tell me what they think I’m doing incorrectly and where I should spend the company’s money in better ways, without any knowledge of our financial statements,” she says. “I truly do not believe that those same manufacturing-level team members would feel as free to give so much advice and feedback—again, unsolicited—to a male CEO.”

This type of bias, Stembel says, is informed by who employees have long seen as CEOs and make it harder for women to demand the same level of respect as their male counterparts. Even people who claim to want women in positions of power may be biased against female bosses. “For most of our lives, we’ve only seen men in CEO positions, so we subconsciously believe that they are more qualified to lead—even if we would say otherwise,” she says. “We’ve been marketed so many images of men in leadership positions. How can our brains not be trained to think so?”


About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.