One worrying trend I’ve observed among my male investor friends is that they’re much more wary of giving candid advice to women founders than they used to be. They are afraid of saying anything that a female founder might misinterpret as sexism. So, when giving feedback to a woman they don’t know well enough to trust, they talk with less candor than they would with a male founder.¹ When this happens, women are missing out on potentially valuable advice.
For example, an investor I know once told the male CEO of a company he’d funded that his female co-founder seemed better-suited for the job of CEO. Ultimately they swapped roles and their company went on to do quite well. This same investor had similar concerns about another team he’d funded, but this time, the genders were reversed: the CEO was a woman and her cofounder that the investor thought should be CEO was a man. This time, he said nothing. Since he hadn’t invested much money, he decided he’d rather say nothing than risk being accused of sexism. The company did, in fact, wind up doing badly.
When the consequences of something happening are horribly extreme, you only need a few instances to make people change their behavior. And the consequences of being accused of sexism by an online mob have now become so extreme that many investors don’t want to risk it anymore. All they have to do is offend the wrong person and their reputation could be permanently damaged.² Anyone could make a false accusation, so when investors meet you, they have to assume—until they can tell otherwise—that you might be a worst case scenario.³
The degree to which men hold back on their advice depends on 1) how much is at stake and 2) how much they trust you. For example, you’ll be much more likely to get candid advice from an investor who has invested a lot of money in your company and you’ve known for years vs. a panelist at a tech conference giving feedback onstage who doesn’t know you and hasn’t invested in your startup. The guy on stage will probably give bland advice rather than risk saying anything that might be controversial or seem critical.⁴
As anyone who has done a startup knows, getting brutally honest feedback is really important, especially early on. But often the feedback is not what a founder wants to hear. It may seem overly critical or harsh. And the earlier stage the investor, the more of what they’re telling founders is that they are doing things wrong. It’s hard for an investor to know whether a founder will be offended by the criticism or acknowledge that it’s correct. But even if a male founder is offended, at least he isn’t going to accuse them of sexism. It’s much safer to speak honestly, so they do.
I’m not going to suggest a solution to the problem of men clamming up. This is more of a public service announcement than anything else. I don’t think most female founders even realize that they’re getting different advice than their male counterparts. Silicon Valley has always run on candor, but it’s being stifled at the moment, and no one is noticing that we are the collateral damage.
¹Because this topic is so radioactive, most male investors wouldn’t publicly admit to doing it. They’d fear that they would get in trouble for holding back just as they might for being too candid. And some of the more opportunistic ones might even falsely proclaim that they don’t.
²The more famous the investor, the greater a target for Twitter mobs. But some of the best investors are also the most famous ones, so women lose out disproportionately when they aren’t candid.
³If there weren’t both women who made false accusations and an audience eager to hear and magnify such accusations, then the upstanding investors would have nothing to fear about being candid. But, unfortunately, both do exist.
⁴Investors are often vague with startups because they don’t want to offend them and lose the chance of investing later on. That can happen to both male and female founders. Investors’ extra caution with women is on top of this.