Why aren’t there more women entrepreneurs? Perhaps because when we think of a successful entrepreneur, we automatically think of a man. That’s the conclusion of a new study led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of business administration who studies emotions and behavior. Using three different experiments, she and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and MIT’s Sloan School found that both regular people and experienced angel investors are more likely to be swayed by a man’s business pitch, especially an attractive man’s, compared with the exact same pitch delivered by a woman.
Though the rate of women in entrepreneurship has risen in the past few years, the startup game remains vastly male-dominated. Women-led companies have received only 7% of all venture capital funding in the United States. And yet, “there’s a surprisingly small amount of research on gender and entrepreneurship,” Brooks tells Co.Design. Thus, in the succinct words of her study, “It remains unclear whether the sex imbalance is due to irrational investor behavior.” The paper analyzed how gender played into success in acquiring startup capital by asking participants to watch videos of startup pitches and decide whether they would invest in that company, while manipulating who delivered the pitch.
In one test, the researchers analyzed video recordings of three years of actual entrepreneurial pitch competitions–where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to angel investors, who then award the most promising ideas in the competition startup capital. Men were 60% more likely to be awarded funding than women.
In a second experiment, 521 people (47% female) watched two entrepreneurial pitch videos that showed imaged related to the company being pitched but not the entrepreneurs behind it. A voice-over described the details of the pitch. In one condition, one video was narrated by a man, and the other by a woman. In the other, the scripts were the same, but the roles were switched: The video that had been narrated by a man was narrated by a woman, and vice versa. Afterward, participants chose one of the two companies to fund, under the condition that they would be paid based on how successful a panel of expert investors expected that business to be. Though the content was exactly the same, 68% of the participants elected to fund the venture pitched by the man’s voice, and only 32% chose to fund the one pitched by a woman.
In the last condition, participants (194 people, 58% female) watched one of the dubbed videos from the previous experiment, except this time they were also shown a photo of the entrepreneur supposedly behind the venture. Some of the photos were of super-sexy individuals (pre-tested with another group of participants for attractiveness), and some of the photos were of more average-looking folks. Again, participants reported being more persuaded by a pitch narrated by a male voice. However, they were significantly more likely to want to invest in the business ideas of a sexy male entrepreneur than an average one. For female entrepreneurs, there was no significant difference. Finally, ladies, a moment when our looks don’t matter! (Or, perhaps it had a bit to do with the slightly higher percentage of women doing the rating.)
The researchers hypothesize that their findings are due to something called “lack of fit,” a term coined by NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman to describe the way that gender stereotypes influence the evaluation of women in the workplace. “When we imagine an entrepreneur, people seem to imagine a man,” Brooks explains. “So when you see a female pitching an entrepreneurial venture, there’s this lack of fit between what you imagine and what you’re seeing.” This, in turn, makes the woman’s pitch less persuasive. The results might vary, she suggests, if the experiments had involved pitching extremely feminine products. Would you give money to a man pitching Spanx?
Either way, it highlights the fact that it’ll take a lot more than leaning in to fix the entrepreneurial gender gap. “You know, perhaps there are these really deep-rooted cultural biases we need to tackle,” Brooks says.