Feeling in the minority

Last week I took a small part in the “We Own It” Summit in London.  The invitation to participate came as part of our growing relationship with Astia, which started when (in a moment of honesty) I agreed with a tweet that pointed out that the room was full of white, Anglo-Saxon men in the 50’s wearing suits!!  There were two parts to my involvement.  The first was to attend the evening event where Sharon Vosmek, the CEO of Astia, talked to Cherie Blair about the balance between the genders and the second was to take part in a panel discussion in the conference proper.

I arrived for the dinner and met an old friend, so did some catching up while we waited for the throng to assemble. It was therefore a surprise to look up as the meeting proper started to realise that I was one of less than 10 men in the room.  No matter how liberated I might think I am, the sudden realisation that I was in the minority was a sobering one.  This feeling was reinforced as I was repeatedly asked why I was there – probably politely and out of interest – but given the circumstances mild paranoia began to set in.

The next day, at the conference proper, I was on a panel discussing how country or cultural attitudes impact entrepreneurial behaviour.  The inputs were fascinating.  From the panel, we heard how French studies showed how women in business reacted to their circumstances, how the culture in India meant that business failure was shared by the whole family and how Indian and Chinese minorities in Silicon Valley also suffered from discrimination.  The moderator managed to skewer the British with her opening question to me – “why do the Brits make such a big thing about failure?”  Luckily, I was able to counter that we are just as embarrassed about success as we are obsessed with failure!  Her point was well made – I have US friends on their third or fourth start-up and UK ones who struggle to get funding the second time around!!

The discussion quickly opened up to the room and the panellists were only able to comment of the flow of ideas, but for me at least, it was probably better to listen and learn than try to encapsulate complicated and often deeply held beliefs.  A measure of the level of debate was that the 90 or so minutes flew by and all too soon the panel ended.

It is always difficult to pick out the learnings that will stand the test of time, but there were some points that have stayed with me for a few days so aren’t in the “discard” group – yet!

1.     Talent (or the lack of it) does not correlate with gender.  There are as many talented women as men – and as many who should not be allowed to run a business!

2.     Confidence is vital.  Most in business agree that recognising and learning from failure are important learning opportunities but, if the failure is yours, unless you try again that learning is lost.  This is perhaps the area where I think I heard there is still much to do – the insidiousness of stereotyping saps many women of the necessary confidence.  There was a  suggestion that men are more prone to over-confidence, but I will plead the fifth on that!

3.     Balance is also important.  Tom Kosnik made the point that for most products and services, the customer base is composed equally of men and women.  Having a management team that had limited insight into your customer base (by being all men – or women) felt like bad planning.  Cherie Blair quoted studies that suggested anything less that 30% on either side led to the potential for dysfunctional teamwork.

4.     Mentoring is important in giving confidence.  It was mentioned a lot but I got the impression that good mentoring is best viewed with hindsight.  People don’t decide to “mentor” or “be mentored”.  They offer support or ask for advice, and the relationship grows over time.  Like the apocryphal 50% of the marketing budget, it is difficult to see ahead of time what s useful and what is wasted.

5.     Opportunity is probably the easiest barrier to fix.  I had a fascinating conversation with someone who challenged me on what the Technology Strategy Board was doing to help women be more successful in high growth companies.  The fact is that we assess on paper proposals for innovative projects.  We do not identify the leader of the project, so we cannot discriminate but we also cannot say what fraction of women we support.  With competitions like the LaunchPad, the face (or faces) on the video give away the gender of the presenter, but do not tell us the make-up of the company, or who the driving force is.  Given some amazingly worrying comments that even women funders are wary of supporting “too many” women led companies, perhaps our system has an advantage.  Although many Venture Capitalists I know say they would rather fund a good team with a less good idea, a process that assesses ideas for potential business success does offer a more level playing field.

I was left with a feeling that Astia and the “We Own It” movement have a long way to go, but are tackling the challenge in a logical and appropriate way.  I guess the KPI for my involvement is also clear – will they invite me back next year?

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:05

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  • Parool Patel|10/10/11 at 8:06 PM

    Sometimes the minority is actually the majority.... However visible or invisible that may be.

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