Gender equality in the technical workplace: Equipment matters!

Recently, many of us applauded Christina Koch and Jessica Meir  who made ‘herstory’ as the first all female crew to walk in space.

But this was not an intentional goal for NASA to achieve. The first female astronaut Kathryn Sullivan walked in space in 1984. Why the 35-year delay? It’s definitely not a pipeline problem. These days there are equal numbers of qualified female and male candidates vying for space missions.

It’s an equipment problem –  spacesuits only come in medium, large and extra-large sizes. Space suits are not being made that would fit women – and that’s the reason why women have less opportunities to  do space walks

The lack of intentionality to actively address the male norms for space flight limits diversity. It literally says, if you don’t fit the suit, you don’t fit in … when in fact body size and proportions have nothing to do with capabilities.

Another equally false assertion is that a large male body type is necessary since ‘there may be some heavy lifting during the mission’ but in zero gravity space conditions, this is nonsense.

Other male dominated industries are also limiting women’s participation and safety when they do not take the necessary steps to address existing  industrial male-focused norms.

Take for example, the construction industry. Traditionally safety gear also referred to as personal protective equipment (PPE) was designed to fit average sized men. As more women start working on construction sites, large manufacturing companies introduced unisex  PPE options. More often than not, unisex gear is simply a smaller version of the existing PPE range.  While unisex safety gear may be appropriate for some limited situations, women are not just smaller-sized men, their body configurations and proportions are different. Correctly sized and fitted PPE is especially important for hazardous settings.

But even when PPE gear is marketed for women, it does not mean that it has been tested on women. In some cases, fall protection harnesses have been adapted to fit women’s bodies more comfortably, but they have never actually been biomechanically tested on women. In deadly situations, there is no guarantee they will actually work.

Women workers, already highly visible in a male dominated industry, don’t want special attention or  treatment – they just want to get the job done like their male co-workers. Too often this means putting up with ill-fitting unisex gear their bosses bought in bulk on Amazon.

The right talent ‘fit’ for the job should not be limited by the lack of suitable equipment to adequately enable and protect different body types.

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Revolutionizing the workplace for new modern families through digital support

At work, starting a family is generally viewed as a personal issue – something that needs to be taken care of outside of the workplace. However, given the prevailing notions of traditional gender roles, this disproportionately affects new mothers. And the results have come with high economic costs as large numbers of mothers leave their career-track jobs to care for children. If these mothers reenter the workforce, they usually take part-time positions or work as consultants resulting in massive losses in human capital.

However, families, labor force demographics and businesses are rapidly changing. Most modern families are now based on dual income households and do not have a support system (such as extended family) nearby.  In the US, the majority of women with a young child are in the labor force, and more mothers are serving as their family’s sole or primary “breadwinner.” Businesses, both large and small, especially innovative companies working in highly competitive sectors are increasingly aware that if they want to attract and retain top talent, supporting new parents is no longer an option but a necessity.

In response, innovative solutions to support new parents are being introduced such as the Cleo app. The Cleo app uses technology-based solutions to provide easy connectivity, access and affordability with personal care to revolutionize the work-life balance for working parents. Founded in 2016 by Shannon Spanhake and Chitra Akileswaran, Cleo’s mission is to help women and men navigate through the stages of new parenthood: becoming a parent, being a new parent, and then finding success as a working parent.

Currently available in 35 countries, the Cleo app provides comprehensive prenatal and postpartum care connecting parents to trusted, vetted, experts in specialties ranging from lactation consultants, nutritionist and sleep coaches to parenting and family therapists and career strategists (to plan parental leave and return to work). Consultations can take place in-person, via skype and can be accessed via 24/7 text messaging. Cleo also provides support for diverse parenting needs ranging from LGBTQ parents and single parents to adoption and surrogacy options.

The Cleo app is currently being provided by large companies such as Ebay but also as a cost effective and affordable benefit offered by small and medium-sized companies. Some of  the Cleo app’s medium sized company clients including the social bookmarking tool Pinterest, the public accountancy firm BPM  and social publishing network Medium. Direct business benefits include health savings, retention and attraction of women and senior talent as well as staying connected to employees while they are on parental leave.

But perhaps one of the most revolutionary impact of the Cleo app is the increased engagement of fathers. Most Millennial fathers and mothers are comfortable using digital technology and with the Cleo app both can equally access information, text message and hop on joint consultations via skype increasing the options to stay informed and actively involved as working parents.

See also:

Marwan, S. (2018)  Parenthood Transition Startup Cleo Raises $10.5 Million Series A Round, Forbes, June 13, 2018

Spanhake, S. (2018) Parents Are the Future of Work: We raised $10.5M from Greylock Partners to continue supporting modern families to succeed at work and home, Medium, June 13, 2018

Welsh, J. (2018) Cleo Raises $10M Series A To Help Millennials Better Manage Their Money, Forbes, September 21, 2018

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Gender and Venture Capital Lead Investors: Why does it matter?

According to Crunchbase in 2017, only 8 percent of venture capital (VC) partners of the top 100 VC firms globally were women. According to a recent study conducted by Gender Metrics , an even smaller percentage of women act as lead VC investors. This gender disparity is impacting which entrepreneurs get funding as well as how funded companies develop and grow.

Why focus on lead VC investors? Lead VC investors tend to exert the greatest influence on investment deals: they set the price and terms of the investment, take a large part of the round, and usually represent the entire funding round on the funded company’s board.

Research data on lead VC investors for Early Stage investments made in the United States (2012 – 2016) was compiled using the Pitchbook database. The bubble graph provides a visual representation of the study’s results. Each bubble represents a VC partner lead investor. The size of the bubble indicates the overall number of deals per lead investor. Female lead VC investors are represented by green bubbles and male lead VC investors represented by blue bubbles.

The total sample of 283 VC partners includes 38 female VC partners (13 percent) and 245 male VC investors (87 percent). The highest number of deals by a single lead investor was 122. Two male VC partners reached this level of deals in 2012 – 2016. The highest number by a single female VC partner was much lower at 56 deals.

It is also critical to note that during this time period, the vast majority of female VC partners (63 percent) were not active as lead VC partners in any of the VC deals made. In comparison, a much smaller percentage (38%) of male VC partners were not active as lead VC partners.

These preliminary results indicate that in terms of VC deal impact, women are playing an even smaller role than would be expected when looking at the total numbers of female VC partners. In other words: Measurement matters –  VC headcount and VC deal impact are not the same.

Solution? Creating more VC firms founded, funded and focused on women is part of the solution. Increasing the numbers of women VC partners in existing VC firms is another part of the solution. Increasing the numbers of women VC partners active as lead investors in VC deals must also be an integral component for tipping the scales toward gender parity.

What else? Real change needs to incorporate tracking and benchmarking mechanisms: Tools, metrics and measurements that take into account the entire scope of VC firm activities.

For further information including later stage investment results click here.

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Over $1 billion funding for women entrepreneurs – Will it work?

The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, also known as We-Fi is a $1 billion dollar fund and potential game changer in accelerating the further expansion of women’s entrepreneurship in developing countries beyond the micro level.

Launched at the G20’s leaders’ summit in July, the fund, administered by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation will be allocated to programs initiated by multilateral organizations such as the Inter- American Development Bank (IDB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), African Development Bank and others.

But will it work? Beyond the initial investment… will it be able to create more opportunities for women to start, grow and reap the benefits of successful entrepreneurship? Three issues are important to consider in the process before actual funding takes place: Ensuring longevity, Avoiding ghettoization, and Target group identification.

1.Ensuring longevity

$1 billion USD is substantial amount but not a limitless supply of money. Past experiences have shown that similar types of programs such as guaranteed loans for women entrepreneurs disappear once the project funding has been spent.

The issue is embedding a new gender aware mindset within the implementing institutions.

  • This approach should include gender training for all decision-making levels and departments, not only the directly affecting staff. Brainstorming how other services could also be offered, developed and integrated.
  • A timeline for the stages of integration should be developed prior to project approval so that only institutions that are committed to integrating and ensuring the continuation as well as expansion of services receive funding.
  • See also the next point below….

2. Women entrepreneurs are ‘ghettoized’ and only considered for funding earmarked for women entrepreneurs

An important sub-component of the We-Fi should be raising the visibility of women entrepreneurs through metrics and data collection:

  • Metrics need to be systematically integrated and increase the data on women entrepreneurs (who get funding and outcomes) what works and what doesn’t work.
  • There should be an individual skilled in data collection included in the project team and budget.
  • Before data collection, the needs of three key stakeholders must be incorporated: 1) What types of metrics do fund managers need? 2) What type of data helps in further project development and implementation? 3) What type of data would be useful for policy making at the regional/national level?
  • The collected data should be compiled and developed into analytics.
  • The resulting analytics are made available to other institutions (banks, funding agencies, multilaterals) as tools to screen/access potential candidates for funding (similar to the use of psychometrics for bank loans).

3. Maintaining a focus on high growth women entrepreneurs

Surprisingly, this may be the most difficult issue to address. Operationalizing ‘growth oriented’ entrepreneurship is especially tricky since existing definitions tend to be vague or difficult to measure. Yet it is of paramount importance that  the growth aspect not be lost in the administration of programs and initiatives. Clear definitions of growth-orientation need to be developed since traditional micro-finance programs are not able to meet the funding or capacity building needs of growing businesses.

Working definitions should be developed prior to project funding and incorporate elements of business track record (employees, revenue, profits), sector viability, innovativeness (current and potential) entrepreneur human and social capital (skills,  networks, experience, education, etc.) as well as aspirations for growth.  See earlier blog on Defining high growth/high impact entrepreneurship.

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Defining high growth/ high impact entrepreneurship

entrepreneurship-lighbulb(1)A widely accepted definition of high growth entrepreneurs identifies these enterprises as exhibiting an average annual growth (number of employees or by turnover) greater than 20% over a 3 year period[1]. Based on this definition, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that high growth firms constitute between 3% and 6% of all firms.

Another definition for high impact companies introduced in 2011 takes into account a firm’s sales and employment growth[2]. High-impact companies showed sales that at least double over a 4 year period and an employment growth quantifier (product of its absolute and percentage employment change) of at least two.

However, both these definitions require large amounts of firm level, longitudinal data that is difficult to operationalize across multiple countries and regions.  A 2011 Ernst and Young study of entrepreneurship in 60 countries found that only 3 out of every 1,000 respondents achieved high growth[3]. These high impact entrepreneurs were defined in terms of their growth aspirations: as those entrepreneurs who intend to increase their number of employees fivefold in the next 5 years. They also exhibited certain identifiable characteristics: They tended to be college educated and had internationally-oriented businesses. The study was based on Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) data.

In 2015 the Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard adapted the parameters introduced by the 2011 Ernst and Young study to specifically identify high impact women entrepreneurs.  The Scorecard defined high impact women entrepreneurs as those who exhibit characteristics associated with high growth outcomes but which may currently be aspirational rather than already achieved[4]. The 3 criteria used included: college educated women entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs that have a  market-expanding, innovative businesses and are intending to employ at least 10 people and plan to grow more than 50% in 5 years. Market expanding, innovative businesses are identified as the percentage of women entrepreneurs with more than 1% of customers outside of the home country.



[1]OECD (2007). Eurostat-OECD Manual on Business Demography Statistics, Paris: OECD.

[2] Tracy, S. (2011). Accelerating Job Creation in America: The Promise of High Impact Companies, Research report commissioned by the U.S. Small Business Administration, No. 381

[3] Morris, R. (2012). ‘The 2011 High-impact Entrepreneurship Global Report’, sponsored by Ernst and Young, Endeavor, and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor

[4] Aidis, R., Weeks, J. and Anacker, K. (2015), The Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard 2015: Data and Methodology


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How homophily hurts high-growth entrepreneurship


Homophily refers to the tendency for people to form connections with others like themselves. This tendency has been found to occur broadly across age, race and political inclination. Homophily has also been found to influence many types of relationships ranging from personal friendships and marriage to business-related work advice and support. No surprises then, that homophily also affects Venture Capitalists (VCs) in their hiring behaviors as well as in funding of high-growth entrepreneurs. In fact, recent research by Gompers & Wang (2017) identified patterns of homophily-based hiring by VCs and homophily-induced information flows. Both of which have resulted in fewer women choosing to be high-growth entrepreneurs or VCs.

The real issue is not blatant sexism, but rather a marginal preference for a male vs. female candidate which results in more male VC partners and more VC funding for male high growth entrepreneurs. At the VC firm level, a small bias towards hiring someone of the same gender may seem trivial but the cumulative effect results in persistently low representation of women in the VC industry. In other words, ‘individual’ preference in the ‘white’ male dominated VC industry translates into a continuing trend of ‘white’ male dominated VC firms in spite of the presence of suitable candidates that are women.

Ample evidence captures this trend: Of the top 100 VC firms in the US, only 7% of the VC partners are women and only 18% of funded companies were founded by women in 2016.

Why does it matter?

At the personal level homophily may feel like the right thing to do but in reality interferes with rational judgement of individual or business merits. Moreover, homophily can result in unintentional glass ceiling effect consequences for those individuals such as women, who are not already well-represented in the VC community.

The negative effects of gender homophily have been identified elsewhere including among US physicians in referring specialists to Medicare patients. In this case, since most referrals are still made by male physicians, biased referrals lower demand for female specialists. Since specialists tend to earn more than primary care physicians, this behavior significantly contributes to the average gendered earnings gap among physician specialists.

The simple solution in both cases, for VCs and physicians alike, would be to increase the numbers of women at the decision-making level. However, at a more fundamental level, in order to counter the persistent effects of homophily, increased exposure to diversity as well as increased availability and use of metrics and assessments would allow for ‘choices’ to develop based on a broader range of criteria that go beyond superficial similarities.

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Getting it Done: Barbara Kasoff – Champion for Women’s Business Advocacy


Even when public sector institutions commit to policies that include a gender perspective, the knowledge and capacity are often lacking to ensure that women will be able to benefit from the specific initiative or intervention. More involvement is needed to better understand how high level policies can be activated to benefit women. Women’s organizations can play a key role in this process.

WIPP (Women Impacting Public Policy) is an excellent example of a women’s organization that filled the gap between policy and practice needed to facilitate the development and growth of women owned businesses (WOBs).

Co-founded by Barbara Kasoff in 2001, WIPP elevated the visibility of women business owners in the US using 3 key strategies:

  • Information & training
  • Advocacy & lobbying
  • Coalition-building

Information & Training: WIPP educates WOBs on economic policy and current legislative initiatives that impact business health and growth. For example, in 1994, a US government procurement target was set so that 5% of annual spend for US government contracts should be awarded to WOBs. However, in spite of this policy, very few WOBs were able to bid and win government contracts. WIPP educated and provided training to WOBs regarding the procurement bidding process.

Advocacy & Lobbying: WIPP’s legislative strategy is to have the greatest possible impact for WOBs. WIPP representatives regularly meet with members of the US Congress, the White House and federal agencies to educate and lobby for legislative reforms.

It was only through years of concerted effort by WIPP, to educate WOBs on the application process as well as to lobby US government officials to modify contract requirements that the 5% annual women-owned small business procurement target was met in 2015. However, the third key strategy, Coalition-building, lay the groundwork for the other two strategies to succeed.

Coalition-building:  From the onset, WIPP had a clear, strategic vision. Instead of acting alone on behalf of its own members only, WIPP formed a coalition of 79 women’s business organisations that represents over 4.7 million business women to create a unified and powerful voice for WOBs based on a platform of common economic issues such as US procurement policies and access to capital.

Barbara Kasoff served as WIPP’s President for 9 years and most recently served as WIPP’s President Emeritus. Her message was simple: If you don’t like the way government regulations affect your business, get involved. She led by example, facilitating billions of dollars in US government contracts to reach growing numbers of WOBs.  We are grateful for and benefit from her visionary leadership!

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