It likely comes as no surprise that I’m so over the trend of female founder “hit pieces” in the tech press. You know the ones—journalists who are women talk to sources who are (often) women to dig into the pitfalls and toxic culture at startups like Away, Outdoor Voices, The Wing, and Spring Health, all companies that were founded by women. I used to work at Away (joining when there were ~10 employees) and now I’m the co-founder and public face of a startup, so I have a lot of thoughts.
ICYMI, the latest “takedown” piece focuses on Glossier and its founder, Emily Weiss. The article is behind a paywall, which is why I’m not linking it here. It also reads like gossip—instead of digging further into Glossier’s recent business pivots (it’s abandoning its plan to become the “Facebook of beauty”), the article chooses to pay extra attention to details like Emily Weiss leaving New York during the pandemic and wanting employees to keep their desks overly clean.
I have no issue with journalism that breaks stories about genuine business failures or workplace discrimination, but I struggle to see the value of pieces with emotionally-charged rhetoric that attacks a founder’s personal life. This is a certain type of critique that seems to be solely reserved for women and it’s hard to ignore the double standards at play here.
When people join companies founded by a more diverse leadership team than the white, male executives that typically dominate startupland, it’s evident that employees subconsciously believe that startups led by women will be “better.” And I get that. We herald “female founders” by featuring them in lists and promotional articles and podcasts, but we don’t do the same for “male founders” (that’s not even a term!). So it’s easy to imagine that tech workers think companies with female leadership will be a type of workplace utopia, free of (or at least sheltered from) the intense hustle culture that haunts most venture-backed startups because of the pressure that capital puts on growth. And while startups founded and led by women can often be “better” from a values or mission perspective, the fact of the matter is, these are companies at the end of the day.
Startups are usually founded by highly ambitious people who pursue success with sheer grit and determination to 1) make money and 2) solve a larger issue that they see in the world. Anyone who has worked in a hyper-growth startup knows how highly unglamorous, chaotic, and intense it can be as a work environment. The need to “grow at all costs” is never the product of the founding team’s gender—that is simply one of the systemic challenges felt across the entire industry.
But of course, gender clouds our judgment.
We hold preconceived notions that women are more maternal and empathetic figures than men, so we put them on pedestals and expect “better” behavior from them as leaders. We accept male leaders as sometimes aggressive and harsh, and it’s shocking when women exhibit those same character traits. Even the other day, I was called “ambitious” in a pitch with a venture capitalist—an adjective I’m sure Travis Kalanick was never called when he was raising money for Uber.
To be clear—I firmly believe that every leader should build their company with empathy & continue to refine their leadership skills. And when these “takedown” pieces get published, I hope that the leaders they call out take the time to read the article and assess if there’s genuinely room for improvement. But, as a startup leader who happens to be a woman, I also refuse to build a company with a target on my back, second guessing every “ambitious” business decision that I make.
We desperately need new definitions for feminine leadership besides descriptors like “girlboss.” How can we start to shift the conversation? What do you think of the phenomenon of female-founder takedowns? We started the conversation in Diem this week, listen here
and share your own thoughts with the community.