As we move from February, from Black History Month, into March, which includes International Women’s Day on March 8th, I am reminded of the work that still needs to be done to create racial and gender equality.

We move so quickly from one month to the next with little reflection. We tend to think about racial inequality as separate from inequality based on gender or class, sexuality, or immigrant status. What needs to be added is how some people are subject to all these; the experience is not just the sum of its parts.

In 1989, professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined “intersectionality” to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” and overlap. Feminism points out that women earn just 89 cents for every dollar a man makes. Intersectional feminism points out that Black women make 69 cents for every dollar a man makes. Latina women make only 57 cents for every dollar a man makes. Asian women are the highest earners, making 99 cents for every dollar a man makes. (

Advancing gender equality is not just about closing the gap between men and women- people experience different barriers depending on many elements of their identities.

The Government of Canada’s International Women’s Day (IWD) 2024 theme is Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress. It’s a call to action and a reminder that gender equality is one of the most effective ways to build healthier, prosperous, and inclusive communities.  

As Angel Investors and startup advisors, we understand the stakes in securing investment and the challenges of raising capital. Last month, we discussed dismantling racial bias. We must continue this work now with an intersectional lens of race and gender.

Women continue to face barriers in entrepreneurship, with only 17 percent of small and medium-sized businesses being owned by women in Canada.

The inequalities in startup funding are well documented. We ask men to win and women not to lose– or rather, we ask men how they will make money and women how they will not lose money. Much of the past research has focused on overt negative sexist attitudes that question women’s competence and suitability for entrepreneurship. This view overlooks the existence of more subtle and socially acceptable sexist attitudes that often go unnoticed.  

Benevolent sexism, unlike its overt counterpart, is often masked by seemingly positive attitudes and behaviours toward women. It manifests in polite gestures, such as opening doors or offering assistance, which may appear harmless or even courteous on the surface. However, beneath this veneer of benevolence lies a deeply ingrained belief in traditional gender roles and the inherent inferiority of women.

Our startup culture prioritizes risk-taking, assertiveness, and aggressive ambition; benevolent sexism can manifest in subtle but insidious ways. Women may find themselves subtly marginalized or excluded from decision-making processes, their contributions undervalued or dismissed under the guise of being “protected” or “taken care of.”

One common manifestation of benevolent sexism in startups is the tendency to stereotype women into specific roles or functions within the organization. Women are often nudged towards positions perceived as more nurturing or supportive, such as human resources or marketing, while men predominantly occupy leadership roles in engineering or product development. This pigeonholing not only limits women’s career advancement but also reinforces gender biases and perpetuates the myth of women’s innate unsuitability for certain roles.

Benevolent sexism can create a toxic work environment where women feel patronized or infantilized, and their abilities and accomplishments are diminished through well-intentioned but ultimately damaging compliments or remarks. For instance, praising a female colleague for being “articulate” or “well-spoken” may seem innocuous. Still, it subtly reinforces the stereotype that women are expected to be less competent communicators than their male counterparts.

The culture of benevolent sexism can discourage women from advocating for themselves or asserting their opinions and ideas. In a startup environment that values confidence and assertiveness, women may feel pressured to conform to traditional gender norms, lest they be perceived as too aggressive or ambitious. This can create a self-perpetuating cycle where women’s voices are systematically silenced or marginalized, leading to a lack of diversity of thought and innovation within the organization.

Addressing benevolent sexism in startups requires a concerted effort to challenge deeply ingrained attitudes and beliefs about gender roles and capabilities.

BUT we are making progress! There has been an increasing focus on women-led companies, matched by a steady rise in investments over the past years. This positive trend can be attributed to the efforts of angel groups that have recognized the value of diversity and are actively seeking to break down traditional barriers. By fostering an ecosystem that supports women-led ventures, these groups are not only contributing to economic growth. Still, they also showcase the potential for better returns and financial performance through a diverse portfolio of startups.

As leaders and investors, we must lead by example, actively promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives and holding individuals accountable for perpetuating sexist attitudes or behaviours. This may involve implementing unconscious bias training, revising hiring and promotion practices to mitigate gender bias, and creating mentorship and sponsorship programs to support women’s career advancement.

By recognizing and challenging the underlying attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate gender stereotypes and discrimination, we can create a more equitable and inclusive culture where all have the opportunity to succeed and thrive. During March, we will be sharing resources for women-led businesses and more success stories. We all have a role in building a future where everyone can reach their full potential.

This post came from the February edition of the AIO Newsletter. Sign up below to get your copy delivered directly to you every month and stay up to date on everything happening in the angel investor ecosystem. 

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