Talking about money can be profoundly uncomfortable. The social awkwardness sets in at even the most casual times; a cheerful dinner with friends can devolve into embarrassed stammers when a waiter asks how they should split the check, or a business meeting might turn awkward when those involved hesitate over bringing out the company credit card to pay for coffers. Most of the time, we can tiptoe around the discomfort with a few halting words and split checks. For female entrepreneurs, however, the shadow of that monetary anxiety is a daily - and expensive - issue.
Women own more than 11.6 million firms in America. They employ nearly 9 million people, and in 2017 generated $1.7 trillion in sales; their owned ventures account for a full 39% of all privately held firms in the United States. Women aren’t waiting by the door for a chance to be let into the business world’s metaphorical conference room - they’ve pointedly claimed over a third of the seats at the table.
However, for all their success and progress, women entrepreneurs and employees still struggle to stand on an equal financial par with their male colleagues. A recent study conducted by the online accounting venture FreshBooks surveyed over 2,700 American professionals and found that women tended to earn around 28% less than their male counterparts. This gap, the study showed, remained even when the researchers compared male and female entrepreneurs in the same industry.
To rephrase: even when women entrepreneurs had the opportunity to determine their salary, they tended to pay themselves over a quarter less than male colleagues. For female business owners, anxiety over asking for money isn’t just a problem at restaurants and social functions - it has a real impact on their financial health.
The problem extends to the health of their businesses, too. Some studies have found that women are reluctant to be as assertive as men when asking for money at investors’ meetings. As Gloria Kolb, the co-founder of the women’s health startup Elidah and a mentor at the University of Connecticut’s tech incubator explained for Business News Daily, "When we pitch investors, we are often pitching realistic numbers. But men so often overstate and exaggerate that investors often discount the numbers off the bat.” This leads, Kolb explains, investors to assume that women are also inflating their figures. As a result, female entrepreneurs often receive lowball offers that don’t meet their businesses’ financial needs.
But why do we have such a taboo around money in the first place?
Forbes writer and senior editor Laura Shin suggests that our awkwardness has roots in old-money traditions. For many upper-class elites, she explains of her research, it was considered gauche to discuss monetary specifics and appear braggy or over-interested in others’ financials. Over time, their mentality trickled down through the classes - and with the rise of new-money entrepreneurs and an increased media focus on their financial activities, navigating money-centered conversations can become awkward, to say the least.
However, women tend to struggle more with the assertiveness talking about money requires. When you sit down at an investor’s table, you need to be firm, decisive, and unafraid to ask for the monetary resources you and your business need to grow. Social norms, unfortunately, tend to paint women in a less flattering light when they stand their ground.
As writer Olga Khazan puts the issue in an article for the Atlantic, “People expect women to be communal leaders and men to be autocratic ones. When women violate those norms—or "push" past them, if you will—they still suffer consequences.”
To Khazan’s point, women do tend to be labeled as “pushy” twice as often as men - and that negative label can have real repercussions on their business. The Freshbooks study mentioned above also noted that 20% of self-employed women reported feeling forced to charge less than their male competitors to obtain and retain clients. Worse, multiple studies published by researchers from Carnegie Mellon found that people tended to penalize women who initiated negotiations for higher compensation more often than they did men.
Some might say that the potential for blowback means that women shouldn’t bother being assertive or asking for their due - but I couldn’t disagree more.
Fear keeps women entrepreneurs silent, and that silence leads in turn to a damaging ignorance about what they deserve from their industry. As novelist Porochista Khakpour reflects on the problem in an article for Forbes, “Because people don’t know what the rates are, [the taboo against speaking about money] creates a system in which people will say, ‘I’ll take whatever I can get.’”
This tendency towards settling thus reinforces the problem, Khakpour explains. “People are going to get cheated over and over, and it tends to be women, people of color, people in more marginalized positions — if people are silent about problems, things can be perpetuated.”
Female entrepreneurs deserve to be assertive in the boardroom; they deserve to earn, make, and claim just as much as any male in their profession. Discomfort over money is an outdated social norm that inevitably holds women back if they cede their voice to it. You can overcome your conversational anxiety about money if you remember these three steps:
Reevaluate your Discomfort
Consider the social context of your conversation. There is a difference between talking to someone at a social gathering and having a discussion with an investor or business partner. In the first case, you probably shouldn’t put someone on the spot by asking them how much they paid for their shiny new laptop or personal possessions. In the latter scenario, however, you’re not only allowed to discuss money - you are required to. It is quite literally your job to have those conversations to further your business.
Remember, no one will go out of their way to give you something. If you don’t take the initiative to ask, your chances of receiving the funding, advice, or support you need will drop to nil.
Reframe Your Questions
Trust your instincts. If you feel that it might be better to word your requests carefully and avoid the appearance of being too eager or stubborn, do so! Conversely, don’t be afraid to be assertive if showing confidence seems like the best way to make an impression. You can reframe your questions in a myriad of ways to better engage your conversational partner in a productive discussion. However, this advice comes with a caveat - never let your fear of being assertive hold you back from asking what you need to ask during a meeting.
Above all, be yourself and take what you deserve. You don’t need to settle for less because outdated social norms dictate that you should feel awkward about discussing money! Entrepreneurs live in the financial spotlight; they need to talk about financial details to thrive.
More to the point - if women don’t push boundaries and ask for their due, how can we expect those outdated and confining norms to change?