Why are there fewer female startup founders than males? Could it be that hubris plays a part? UTS Hatchery Accelerate Program Manager Joe Allen explains what it is and its impact on female founder startup rates.
Over the past three years, I’ve worked with hundreds of startup founders. I’ve been fortunate to meet some amazing people, like our own Hatchery Accelerate startup founders Blaise McCann from Hear Us Roar and Abhi Bhandari and Diya Singhal of Make My Piece (pictured above). Not to mention founders from the wider Sydney startup community Katherine Maree Pace (Elanation), Farid Mirmohseni and Reza Keshavarzi (Wipe Hero) and Evan Wong (Checkbox.ai).
The more I’ve met founders of both genders and subjectively compared the quality of ideas, the more I’ve noticed a difference between males and females. The obvious difference was that I was meeting way more male founders (roughly an 80/20 split), but I also seemed to meet with a disproportionate percentage of male founders with, dare I say it, pretty average ideas.
I should note that it’s difficult to tell the quality of a startup in the early stages as execution can make a huge difference, but really bad ideas are pretty easy to spot. Take the guy who pitched me a bottle you could take with you on public transport in case you needed to spew. Enough said.
No matter the quality of the idea, the male founders I’ve met seemed to be so confident it would be a huge success.
It got me asking, why was I seeing such a high percentage of male founders? Why wasn’t I meeting more female founders that were equally confident about below average ideas?
There are multiple factors at play but I strongly believe ‘hubris’ played a key role.
What is hubris and how does it work?
If like me, you might only discover the word hubris whilst ‘researching’ your next go on Words With Friends, I’ve provided a definition:
“Hubris describes a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence, often in combination with (or synonymous with) arrogance… Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence, accomplishments or capabilities.” From the source of all truths, Wikipedia.
In the startup world, possessing hubristic qualities isn’t a bad thing, as long as it is balanced by the realities of a market and good execution. Startup founders are risk takers; this often requires some over confidence in your ideas and your abilities. However, there is a fine line between a visionary founder and hubristic one.
I did a bit of Google research to make sure I wasn’t the only one noticing this phenomenon of hubristic male founders. There is actually plenty of research to back this up and it even has a name: the “male hubris-female humility effect”.
Studies like this one have shown that men rate their overall IQ higher than women do and both genders rate their fathers’ and brothers’ IQ to be higher than their mothers’ and sisters’.
The hubris-humility effect goes beyond our perception of intelligence and has been shown to impact startup founding rates between genders. This study found a significant gap (~25%) in serial founding rates between male and female founders on Kickstarter.
When people in the study failed by larger and larger amounts on their Kickstarter goal, it was the females that were disproportionately discouraged from trying again (i.e. lower hubris). What really surprised me, though, was that even when they significantly exceeded their campaign goal, females were disproportionately less likely to try again (i.e. higher humility). See this great interview with Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick explaining this research in more detail.
A lack of hubristic traits isn’t the only reason we see fewer females launching startups. However, knowing this hubris-humility effect exists enables us as startup program managers and supporters of female entrepreneurship to create initiatives to encourage more female entrepreneurs to start their journey.
The hubris hurdle….
This also got me thinking, that beyond getting started, how might this humility or lack of hubris be holding back some female founders? How much importance is placed on confidence in determining a good founder from a bad one?
I would argue that we place a high value on confidence in founders. Pitching is central to the startup experience and often is the only way to unlock opportunities in accelerators and in raising capital. Our perception of a good pitch is influenced by how confident the founder comes across. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham highlights this point in his article “How to convince investors”, where he lists being formidable (which he defines as ‘justifiably confident’) as the “most important ingredient” to getting investors onside.
When we correlate confidence with startup success, we are more than likely unreasonably excluding a certain amount of female founders from accessing programs and capital.
Accounting for the differences in hubris displayed by male and female founders plays an important role in understanding how we can narrow the gap both in females starting a startup and in providing access to opportunities.
…and overcoming it
So how will you account for hubris in your programs and investment decisions? How are you helping female founders develop confidence in their ideas and startups?
I am proud to be part of the UTS Hatchery Accelerate team which has achieved over 50% female-founded teams through the program to date, however I know there is still a lot more we could do and it will be a big focus for 2018.
If you are a female reading this post and you have an idea for a startup, chances are it is a better idea than you think.
Sydney is fortunate to have some incredible initiatives to support female founders on their journey like; Jane Lu & Gen George’s Like Minded B*tches Drinking Wine, BlueChilli’s SheStarts, Marisa Warren’s Elevaco, Christie Whitehill’s Tech Ready Women and Holly Stephens’ Triangles.
You could also check with your university to see if they have a startup support program like the UTS Hatchery – chances are they do.
For any females eager to dip a toe in the water, sign up for the Sydney Women Startup Weekend which is being hosted by UTS this weekend (Feb 16th-18th 2018).
To all the future female founders out there – don’t hold back! Give it a crack, you might be surprised to realise you are far more capable than you thought.
And ‘vomit container’ guy, if you are reading this – I am still happy I got to meet you and the many others like you. Rarely are our first startup ideas the ones we make successful. The most important thing is you started your entrepreneurship journey.