Warning: this article might make your blood boil.
We talk a lot about empowered female entrepreneurs. These are the founders who reach success despite countless systemic barriers standing in their way. But it’s important to acknowledge and make space for stories that aren’t so neat, tidy and inspirational. So many entrepreneurs face increased scrutiny, distrust, a lack of opportunity—and in some cases, outright hostility—because they exist as women in the business world. In what some still think of as a “man’s” world.
While working on this article, I heard many women say that they face sexism all of the time. Daily, in certain cases. It’s difficult to go through, especially if you’re not in a position to dramatically tell them off.
Some of these stories are hard to read. Others are just gag-worthy. And some are so ridiculous and disconnected from reality that you almost want to laugh (hello, temper tantrums!)
Here are 13 stories of sexism told directly by the women entrepreneurs who experienced it themselves.
“Ignoring” household priorities
Sameera Sullivan, matchmaker and relationship expert, Sameera Sullivan Matchmakers:
Casual sexism is something I’ve grown accustomed to, but there was one event that stood out for me. In the initial stages of establishing my business, there was a point where I had to pitch to investors. One investor listened to my entire pitch and asked me very candidly, with a confused look on his face, whether my husband would be okay with me committing so much of my time to the business. That came as a shock to me because the investor was genuinely more concerned about being able to run my household than actually investing in a legitimate business. Safe to say, that conversation didn’t last very long.
Launch the hate campaign
Elizabeth Nelson, Owner, Snowmad Digital:
I work in web design and development, SEO and marketing. It’s a highly male-dominated industry, and I’ve faced sexism since I started my company five years ago. When I first launched, I received hate emails from several male-owned competitors in my local area. They left me bad reviews on Google noting my lack of knowledge. I received spam calls endlessly for several months.
A collection of frustrating stories
Rachel Schromen, Attorney & Owner, Schromen Law, LLC:
Experiencing sexism as a female entrepreneur and business owner is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence. A few recent examples come to mind:
1) I recently received recognition in a local newspaper as the “Best Estate Law Firm in Minnesota.” I sent out an announcement via my newsletter, which goes to current and past clients, professional colleagues and individuals who signed up to receive communications from my law firm. I received a response from a male subscriber that simply read, “Get back in the kitchen.”
2) A financial planner requested that I come to his office to meet with a high net worth client of his, who was a middle-aged male. We had a 90-minute meeting, during which I provided comprehensive and complex legal advice, along with information on how to retain my services.
As the meeting ended, he asked me when he would meet my boss. I explained to him that I was the owner of the firm and an attorney. He asked if there were any male attorneys he could work with, to which I replied there were not. He asked for my business card, which has my professional headshot on it. After I handed it to him, he looked at the card, looked at me and then asked who was in the photo on my business card. I was confused and expressed that. He laughed and went on a tangent about how deceptive women are because we wear makeup and look better in photos than we do in person.
3) I had an initial consultation with a prospective female client. After explaining the fees to retain me, she asked me to justify why I felt I could “charge so much.” (I am very moderately priced). She ended up retaining a male attorney, with comparable experience, who I know charges at least twice my rates.
4) Last, but not least, let’s not forget about the many professional lunch meetings I had early in my career and business ownership with male colleagues who greeted me with a hug (when I offer a handshake first) or led me to the table with their hand on the small of my back. Thankfully, I’ve learned how to better navigate these situations.
Being patronized at every turn
Juliane Grasekamp, food photographer and baking blogger, Bonni Bakery:
I’m a food photographer now, but before this, I ran a bakery for ten years. I opened my first store at the age of 20, after having started the business at the age of 16. The majority of my suppliers, B2B customers, competition and business peers were middle-aged men. Being female, 5’1”, blonde and running a baking business, I lived in a world of sexism! Somehow, being young and female meant that I was often not taken seriously as a business owner. I was overlooked, patronized, talked down to or discounted.
I recall countless networking events where people assumed I was an intern or only there to fetch coffee. When the conversation eventually did turn to me, they would call my business ‘cute’. By age 24, I had two stores, a commercial kitchen, 16 employees and had outgrown many of my local competitors, yet I was still the ‘cute cake girl’. When I would tell these men how big the business had grown or what I had accomplished lately, the common response that most made my blood boil was ‘Oh, good girl!’.
I have to say though, I always saw being underestimated as an advantage. When people don’t see the competition as a threat they don’t put any effort into trying to stop them—so they never saw it coming as I quietly outgrew them!
Yes, I know what I’m doing!
Lynn Power, Co-founder & CEO, MASAMI:
I’ve experienced sexism and ageism from potential investors. MASAMI launched in February 2020, and we had several early conversations with investors to understand the landscape and “test the waters”. I was asked questions like, “So, do you deal with the money?” “Do you understand business metrics?” “Is there someone on your team who handles the investment discussions?”
These were all underhanded ways to say that I might not be qualified. (If they looked at my bio and knew I ran a large ad agency for several years, those are pretty ridiculous questions). It was a huge turnoff, so we are now fully self-funded.
Failing to treat every industry with respect
Christina Russo, Co-founder, The Kitchen Community:
Every single day, I get at least one email and a couple of phone calls from male product reps who insist on patronizing me and treating me like the “little woman” because the business that I run is food and culinary-centric. Because after all, a woman’s place is in the kitchen, right?
The reps that do that completely miss the point of what we’re trying to do and achieve with The Kitchen Community, which was designed to be a platform for everyone who loves to be creative and express themselves through food. It’s insulting and degrading, and it makes me wonder what’s really going on in the wider culinary world and the attitudes that still seem to dominate it.
I used to get angry and reply with long missives or scream at the transgressors down the phone, but now I just hang up on the reps or block their emails. If they can’t treat me like a human being, and if gender is such an issue for these people, then I really don’t want to do business with them, and they don’t deserve to do business with us.
Misogyny isn’t always from men
Jacquelyn Kennedy, CEO, PetDT:
I deliberately chose to use a gender-free name for my business. I wanted what we did to count and not focus on who we were and who I am. Apparently, though, that doesn’t matter, because some customers and clients still don’t believe that a woman should be training large dogs. I wish I could say that it was only men who thought this way. I’ve had more than one—thankfully less than ten—female clients walk out of my training class with their dogs because they didn’t believe that I’d be able to handle, let alone train, any canine larger than a Jack Rusell.
Every single time it happens, it’s demeaning. It makes me wonder why women think that I or any other woman can’t do what men do, and in many cases, do it better? It’s mystifying. I often wonder if the roles were reversed, and I came into their place of work and walked out simply because a woman was in charge, how it would make them feel.
It appears that in some areas of business, the gender gap is still as impossible to bridge, regardless of how far we’ve supposedly “come” and how much things have “changed”. How can we expect men to take us seriously if we’re not willing to do the same for ourselves?
Why are men never told to change?
Morgan Angelique Owens, Entrepreneur, Beauty Editor & Blogger/Influencer, Morgan A. Owens Brands:
My brand is me. It’s pink, feminine, bossy and a little spicy. I came from working in the corporate world, where I felt that I had to downplay my personality.
I started my business to encourage women to be authentic to themselves and still get the job done. Oftentimes as an entrepreneur, I get overlooked because of my branding or my looks. I also get approached by men saying they want to “help my business” and then turn around and blatantly hit on me. I’m also told that I need to appeal more to men by changing my image and my brand colors.
I refuse. Men don’t get told to rebrand themselves or cater more toward women.
Simply refusing to listen
Camila Reed, Body Positive Content Creator, Live Life Big:
Prior to starting my own brand, I owned a digital marketing agency. I worked with local business owners from all walks of life. We’re talking landscapers, dentists, lawyers, arborists, chiropractors and everything in between. Even with so many different clients, I’d still estimate that at least one out of every three male clients asked to talk to the owner or the “the main marketing guy” on the initial sales call. Heck, it was even a common occurrence when talking to other female business owners!
As a one-woman operation, I was both the business owner and “the marketing guy” behind it all. I made that very clear at the start of the call! In fact, I really emphasized it, because many business owners prefer working with smaller operations.
Despite that, it was still frequently assumed that in the male-dominated world of digital marketing, there just had to be a man behind the scenes. I couldn’t possibly be anything beyond the saleswoman or receptionist.
The upside was that it turned out to be an awesome way to screen clients and find a good match. Unfortunately, I had to find this out the hard way after I agreed to work with a chiropractor that couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a female digital marketer. After a few days of back and forth during the initial onboarding process, he eventually emailed me and said, “Can you please have the guy who’s running the campaign message me because I’m not sure you’re following what I’m saying.”
Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last very long after that. I’m just grateful I was in a position to choose the clients I did or did not work with. I know not every woman has that luxury.
This one is just… eye-popping
Alexis Commodore, Founder, BirthX:
During the beginning of our development journey, I hired a software developer who refused to attend meetings or get back to me by email or text in a timely manner—sometimes not at all. After several discussions with him about my expectations, I finally lost it. I ended up yelling at him because he was causing delays with the UX team. He finally did the task I had asked him to but wrote in the subject of the email to everyone “BitchX”.
Needless to say, he no longer works for me.
Need a little break to clear your head? Read about some strong women in film from the 1960s and 1970s.