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Systems Transformative Ideas

Gaslighting: The Silent Killer of Women’s Startups


Photo by: Guillermo De La Torre, Stocksy

Leaders of entrepreneurship support organizations talk an encouraging game about diversity, inclusion, and gender equality. Accelerators, incubators, investor groups, and even policymakers seem passionate about “equity over everything,” saying that it’s “good for the economy” and “simply the right thing to do.”

For women (and I use the word “women” with intersectionality and gender-queer/trans inclusivity in mind), it seems that the sea change we have been advocating for has finally arrived.

But, while formal talk on the outside suggests enlightenment, the hard truth is that the informal talk—and ergo experience—on the inside still remains largely Neolithic. It is not uncommon for women entrepreneurs in mainstream co-ed programs to hear:

“No one here sees gender—just the merit of the opportunity!”

“Men can’t help it—we’re wired to think of women that way.”

“If we accommodated your request, we’d have to accommodate everyone’s.”

“We tried to find qualified women founders.…”

“Are you sure that actually happened?”

“Oh, sorry, did we forget to invite you to that meeting”

“You don’t want venture funding or an exit? We don’t do ‘lifestyle’ businesses here.”

And my personal fave: “It was just a joke.”

The double speak is confusing—and deeply concerning. We are sold an inclusive nirvana at the door, but experience the thousands-year-old patriarchy on the inside.

On the one hand, it is widely acknowledged that women entrepreneurs matter to the tune of $150 billion in untapped economic potential. If we could only find time to address systemic barriers.

On the other hand, women entrepreneurs continue to be told we still don’t really belong. We are too difficult. Bitchy. Soft. Or our venture ideas are not innovative enough.

If we dare complain about unfair practices, give personal examples of discrimination, or try to explain how the program doesn’t work for us, we are told that our opinions are simply that—unsupported by the evidence (“Look at our mission statement again!”). They imply we are being too sensitive and downright destructive (“Hey, we’re a team here!”).

If we think this is new, think again. Simone de Beauvoir wrote 100 years ago when she presented her ideas to male colleagues, notably her collaborator and lover Jean-Paul Sartre. “I struggled with him (Sartre) for three hours. I had to admit I was beaten: I had realized, in the course of our discussion, that many of my opinions were based only on prejudice, bad faith or thoughtlessness, that my reasoning was shaky and my ideas confused.” She concluded by saying she was no longer sure what she thought “or even if I think at all.” She noted that she was “completely thrown.”

Simone de Beauvoir was one of the leading intellects of her generation—and no shrinking flower. There is a word for what she was experiencing. It’s called gaslighting.  Women entrepreneurs are experiencing the same phenomenon—and it’s seriously sabotaging economic growth and human potential.

Gaslighting 101

The term “gaslighting” stems from a 1938 stage play (and a 1940 movie of that name) about a husband who tries to convince his wife that she is crazy by repeatedly flickering the gas lights and, when she notices, denies the light is flickering at all. Psychologists use the term to describe tactics that are used repeatedly, in commonplace ways, to undermine a person or entire group’s perception of reality by denying facts, their experience, the true nature of the environment around them, and their feelings, until the target begins to question their own sense of reality and wonders, “Am I the problem?” The manipulative technique is effective in personal, group, and even whole society levels (think Trump).

How Gaslighting Kills Potential

From my work in the Ontario startup and innovation space, I meet hundreds of fully formed, self-aware, talented, growth-minded women entrepreneurs of all ages. Before deciding to pursue entrepreneurship—often to escape sexism in the workplace or low paying jobs—these women were successful students, had fruitful careers (while often caretaking for the family), and they did their homework. They have strong opinions, identified market gaps, defined goals. They know who they are and what they are capable of. They can stretch a dollar as far as the moon.

That’s how they arrive: eager and looking to benefit from the heavily advertised supports for entrepreneurs.

Then, after engaging with acclaimed mainstream innovation centres and founder programs, they begin second-guessing their business idea, even questioning what they want and who they are. The curriculum and culture alienates rather than motivates. Minified, they feel fruitful rage one day and trustingly surrender the next. Some eventually rein in their ambition, scale back their dreams, or get a job. Others are so discontented by overarching masculine cultures and support structures geared to prioritize STEM innovation and promote venture capital deal flow at the expense of all else that they decide they are better off finding their own way and aligned kinsfolk out in the grassroots level economic wilds where sadly access to capital, talent, and power networks can be even more difficult to tap. Fueled by Orphan Black style hopepunk and female empowerment books, most fearlessly persist but remain energetically plagued by self doubt. “I didn’t fit. I’m the problem. Not the system.”

That’s how a target of gaslighting thinks and talks. Was the diminishment intentional? Given the economic imperative, does that even matter?

Gaslighting experts say that what’s important is to first, recognize the problem. And second, to go after the facts.

Gender Talk, Without the Walk

Studies comparing women to men in the innovation and entrepreneurship space are abundant and continue to show that women remain systemically under-capitalized, under-represented, and under-supported in startup ecosystems across North America.

Curiously, researchers rarely look at the flip side of that coin: how the ecosystem (not just individuals) is performing (or failing) when it comes to supporting diversity, inclusion, and gender equity.

When ecosystem level study does emerge, it’s worth noting.

A new report titled “Strengthening Ecosystem Supports for Women Entrepreneurs” was released on June 13. It took a deep dive into Ontario’s innovation ecosystem and found troubling results. As part of the Ontario Inclusive Innovation Action Strategy (dubbed i2), researchers at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management and Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute surveyed 117 groups (universities, incubators, accelerators, business support organizations, boards of trade, and small business advisory groups) and found that support beyond rhetoric was sadly lacking.

  • Only 44% of the 117 small business support organizations surveyed even consider gender and diversity in recruiting or selecting clients.
  • Of those that consider gender and diversity in their programming, only a handful provided evidence of substantive programs.
  • The definition or criteria for what qualifies as a supportable entrepreneurial idea continues to skew towards STEM and ideas that have the potential to renew or remake male-led sectors. A good example: an analysis of the Ontario Research Fund, which is mandated to promote research excellence in areas of strategic value to Ontario, showed that 88% of the money 2006-2015 went to men largely because what is considered most valuable is research in STEM-based areas.
  • More than 68% of startup incubators do not provide gender equity, diversity, and inclusion training for staff or their founder clients.
  • Almost none of those surveyed had meaningful wrap-around supports for women, particularly those facing barriers, such as child care.
  • Women only account for 29% of Ontario’s startup incubator board positions.
  • Only 3.4% of incubators make accommodations for specific demographic groups.
  • Only 117 (20%) of the 686 incubators and support organizations in Ontario took the time and initiative to participate in the study, an indication of the lack of importance they really place on this issue or their reluctance to report.
  • And, perhaps the most telling of all, most Ontario business support organizations, whether public or private, do not collect gender or other intersectional data to inform program design or evaluation.

A prime example of an organization that does not take gender issues in innovation seriously is the Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) network, the 30-year-old crown jewel in Ontario’s innovation ecosystem with 19 innovation centres across the province and, until its budget was recently cut, had a $277 million dollar annual operating budget. That publicly funded organization neglected to systematically collect gender and diversity data and failed to publicly report how many women-owned firms benefited from its $514 million in startup investments, let alone $1.7 billion in follow-on investments. A 60-page independent Deloitte study in September 2018, which aimed to prove the organization’s performance as a valuable economic engine, included no single statistic, mention or metric that relates to how well the organization served women or diverse entrepreneurs.

Insiders at OCE say that while its organization has worked successfully to improve workplace diversity within its own operations over the past several years, there has been no emphasis on a gender lens–based program assessment. Those who have tried to champion it say it was a lonely ride, and that interest only perked up once the federal Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) funding ($2B) announcements came out.

OCE’s manager of media relations, Andrew Robertson, says gender-specific data was collected for two of its 30+ programs and streams over the years. Under the SmartStart Seed Fund, 45% of fund recipients had at least one woman on the executive team. And over two-thirds of the Ontario Social Impact Vouchers (OSIV) were women-led. However, these statistics were not considered important enough to be included in their annual report.

At present, the SmartStart program is still technically active but closed for applications. The OSIV fund is no longer active.

When OCE’s budget was unfortunately slashed, no wonder Ontario’s approximately 450,000+ women entrepreneurs, on hearing the news, understandably heaved a big “meh.”

When looking at the broader context, it is useful to note that major incubator and accelerator ratings systems like UBI Global, a Stockholm-based research and advisory firm (with only two female board members out of 10) that rates and ranks over 700 university incubators, has 2020 KPIs that do not include diversity or gender metrics.

Is That Light Flickering? Yes, It Is—but Why?

Dr. Barbara Orser, Telfer professor and project leader of “Strengthening Ecosystem Supports for Women Entrepreneurs” (dubbed the i2 report), says that a few organizations are doing terrific, leading edge work. However, on the whole, creating inclusive support services for women entrepreneurs within mainstream innovation and entrepreneurship organizations has a long way to go. Institutional barriers to women’s enterprise growth are still not taken seriously—and it’s an important explanation for the lack of progress. Many leaders also assume that all are welcomed or that all feel welcomed, but this is not enough.

Orser adds that research shows that startup leaders tend to self-appoint themselves experts, over relying on instinct, personal experience, and DIY approaches. They significantly undervalue the expertise required to develop programs to address systemic gender issues required to make real change. You can spot that DIY guy out on the field and on stages, citing his qualifications, commitment, and experience as, “I have two daughters and a wife.”

Ironically, the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy fund may have, as an unintended consequence, actually amplified the gaslighting problem. Suddenly, with that grant money available, entrepreneur support organizations of all kinds self-declared themselves as experts on gender and on designing programs supporting women and diverse groups, even though they had no prior track record, evidence of expertise, or success in helping women’s businesses succeed.

Giving money to such organizations will simply perpetuate the massive gender gaps in entrepreneurship.

We need to find real ways to grow women-led businesses in ways that truly work for women, according to Heather Gamble, founder and CEO of Women on the Move, a women entrepreneur growth accelerator. “We [Canada] have a f*cked up definition of innovation,” says Gamble. “There’s such a heavy reliance on technology, such a narrow view across the board.”

For the kind of change we need, Gamble points to the New Zealand prime minister’s recent pledge to elevate the importance of well-being in that country. “Considering how entrepreneurial people are in New Zealand and given that many women entrepreneurs are in the well-being and caregiving space, that will likely translate into more support for women entrepreneurs in those sectors,” says Gamble.  “So how do we expand the definition of innovation and elevate innovation spend in areas such as well-being in this country?”

Dr. Wendy Cukier, project co-leader for the i2 report, believes manifesting real and meaningful change requires a multi-level ecological, coordinated approach and a lot more accountability. “We need deep, systems-level change and a multi-layer strategy because the barriers women [and people with intersecting barriers] face are, themselves, multi-level. We have stereotypes, values, and beliefs that shape expectations, eligibility criteria that skews which ideas get funded, and who gets counted as an entrepreneur and who doesn’t. All these challenges have to be addressed because they, in turn, inform what intermediary organizations do.”

How Do We Turn Up All the Lights?

The report recommends that we need to build equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) assessment criteria into all future funding requests, establish funding to help small organizations access EDI training, and mandate innovation centres to support all types of innovation (process, organizational, marketing, and across all sectors) and not just product innovation in tech sectors. The researchers would also like to see more collaboration between mainstream and women-focused support organizations and increased expert support for women-led scale-ups.

Cukier agrees with Orser that, ultimately, the Ontario government needs to put more pressure on small business support organizations to take diversity and inclusion issues seriously. Translation: no strategy, no gathering of data, no holding leadership accountable, no public funding.

How Do We Stop the Gaslighting?

While most agree the i2 report contained no real surprises regarding the true state of support for women and diverse entrepreneurs in Ontario, industry leaders and other participants at its reveal were enthusiastic about its potential to inspire a new round of activism, perhaps leading to real change.

Orser urged woman entrepreneurs in an incubator or accelerator program to share the report with program managers and incubator leaders—and ask them to formally respond. “You can organize an in-house discussion group to create space for reflection of your organization’s performance. Use the links to resources provided and help educate the management team. From there, look at the gender nature of the initiatives and think how every service or program can advance D&I and gender equity in the program—and beyond.”

Cukier added that we are “in a special moment, a window of time that has opened” in terms of support for the advancement of women entrepreneurs in this country. But it can always flicker again. So, we cannot afford to squander the moment.

The Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC) is an association of women’s enterprise centres working to advance women-led ventures for over 20 years—and they have the research statistics to prove it.

Sandra Altner, chair of the WEOC board for the past eight years, says that with $2.6 million in new funding from WES, the organization can now offer greater support, knowledge sharing, development of partnerships/collaborations, as well as help co-develop more effective mechanisms to support diverse entrepreneurs in Ontario and across Canada.

Based on the i2 research findings, this news could not come at a better time. If well-fuelled support organizations like MaRS, OCE, and Communitech can’t move the dial, perhaps a WES fund–strengthened coalition of Ontario’s previously ghettoized women’s support networks will do the job—and do it right this time.

It comes down to this: If we want to realize the economic growth that women entrepreneurs are capable of generating, we need to stop gaslighting women entrepreneurs and cultivate an enterprise support system that delivers on the inside what it talks about on the outside.

How to Help Stop Gaslighting in Entrepreneurship Ecosystems?

For starters, you can download, read, and share the report, video, and Livestream presentations with your colleagues, local policymakers, or incubator management team. Advisory boards might want to use the assessment criteria to evaluate their own organization’s practices. You can also suggest your program adopt the DAT (Diversity Assessment Tool) and G-EET (Gender-Smart Entrepreneurship Education & Training) frameworks in your organizational practices.

To help you share the report, and encourage your organization to consider the recommendations, here are several direct links:

Download the report:
Strengthening Ecosystem Supports for Women Entrepreneurs: Ontario Inclusive Innovation (i2) Action Strategy

Watch the recorded keynotes and panel sessions of the report launch:
Facebook: Part 1 (Keynote) | Part 2 (Panel #1) | Part 3 (Panel #2)
Twitter: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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