Today is International Women’s Day. I found myself spending it in the oddest of ways – reflecting about why I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Warren for president. I rationalized this decision months ago with my decade-long affection for Senator Joe Biden, formed after meeting him while interning in the Obama White House. If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t vote for Senator Warren because I don’t believe that America is ready to elect a female president.
Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of Americans came to the same conclusion. When voters were asked in an Avalanche Strategy poll who they would vote for, Senator Joe Biden came out on top. When those same voters were asked to “imagine they have a magic wand and can make any of the candidates president,” Senator Warren became the top pick.
As Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight pointed out, “if everyone just voted for who they actually wanted to be president, the woman would win!”
The challenge of low perceived electability isn’t isolated to women politicians. I believe it underlies a broader societal issue around our belief in the competence of women. In my field, entrepreneurship, this bias is most evident in fundraising.
An investor recently described his reasoning for not investing in a startup run by a female CEO saying “I wanted to invest in her startup, but I just didn’t think she’d be able to get it off the ground.” The CEO had 20 years of industry experience, yet investors still didn’t believe she would be successful.
As I’ve written before, women are now starting companies at a higher rate than men, but receive less than 4% of all venture capital funding. This statistic wouldn’t exist in a world where women leaders were believed to be as competent as men.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, and her electoral predecessor, Secretary Hillary Clinton are both highly accomplished and credentialed politicians. They are also extremely different, with Senator Warren spending much of her career as a law school professor and Secretary Clinton spending most of her career in politics. Yet, despite their differences, Warren and Clinton have repeatedly faced the same accusations of “condescending”, “unlikable” and “shrill.”
As Megan Garber wrote in the Atlantic, the word condescending attempts to rationalize a world where “the achievements of one person are insulting to everyone else.” Garber pulled an especially enlightening quote from a woman in New Hampshire describing Elizabeth Warren, “When I hear her talk, I want to slap her, even when I agree with her.”
What’s a woman leader to do when people don’t believe in your ability to succeed and your attempts to explain your credentials are viewed as condescending?
If viral social media posts hold any insight – and let’s be real, they generally do – then women need to be a bit more like Liz Lemon, Tina Fey’s professionally accomplished but socially spastic character from 30 Rock. Kelli Korducki of Forge writes that high-achieving women need to make their success “look a little bit like an accident in order not to garner resentment.”
Though I’m loathe to admit it, that concept resonates deeply. Despite the fact that I’ve been starting businesses since I was old enough to count change – dog walking and lemonade stands can be more lucrative than you think – I often frame my entrance into the business world as an accident.
I talk about my business by telling the story of how I was introduced to this powerful plant, moringa, while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. I explain that I started my business Kuli Kuli to bring moringa products to the US while supporting women farmers like the ones I’d met in Peace Corps.
This story is entirely truthful, yet it leaves the listener with the idea that I stumbled my way into building a multi-million dollar food business. In the same way that I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Warren for president, I’ve unwittingly failed to give myself a vote of confidence, and the credit for my company’s success.
When Senator Warren was asked if she believes that gender played a role in this race she responded, “Gender is the trap question for every woman. If you say there was sexism in this race everyone says whiner and if you say there was no sexism about a bazillion women say what planet do you live on?”
I think that International Women’s Day is the perfect day for each of us to think critically about how we might not be supporting the women all around us to achieve their full potential. What can you do to boost the success of the women around you? I bet it’s more than you think.
I hope we can create a future where we believe in the abilities of women to run our companies and our country.