Female founders clearly face an uphill battle when securing venture funding, as only a tiny percentage of VC cheques go to female-led startups. Despite what VCs say is a desire to fund more women, many founders say there’s still a lot of bias ingrained in the ecosystem.
A new survey of 43 women founders in early-stage VC Antler’s portfolio — whose companies have raised pre-seed or seed rounds since 2021 — shows just how far the ecosystem still has to go.
To be sure, the Antler survey is anecdotal and has a very small sample size. But the sentiments echo some of Sifted’s conversations with founders in the ecosystem. Here are some of the takeaways:
100% of the female founders polled say the European investor ecosystem is biased against women
Many say they've faced questions that they believe male founders would not be asked by VCs. Those include wildly inappropriate questions, according to the report, like “What is it like being 30 and not having children?” “Do you think you’ll lose interest in the business once you’ve had your baby?” “Do you think you will end up being another Elizabeth Holmes?” “Two women building a tech product — are you sure you’re the right people to do this?” and “Can you send me your qualifications?”
64% believe gender bias has made raising funds more challenging
Some founders say they’ve had mixed experiences with VCs, having encountered both implicit and explicit bias in the fundraising process. Julia Wadehn was out pitching investors to fund her climate tech startup, Novo, just two weeks after giving birth, she says.
During one meeting with a male angel investor while raising their pre-seed round, the “angel actually couldn't believe when we told him that we are already in talks with big B2B partners and clients”, she tells Sifted. “He found it incredible. And later in that same talk, he acknowledged that probably he wasn't looking at us the same way as he was looking at other founders — he had expected less and actually was a bit incredulous about our progress,” she recalls. “It’s nice to actually acknowledge this out loud and tell us that there has been some bias.”
Wadehn also says she was repeatedly told to be more aggressive when pitching their startup — a stereotype of male founders — and that one investor phrased questions in a more sceptical way (“Do you really believe that…”).
It was in contrast to her time at a previous startup, where she served as COO to a male founder during the fundraising process. “It was a different experience,” she says. “There's a lot of natural credibility that the founder could already rely on.”
Female founders still make up a fraction of the startup ecosystem in tech hubs like Germany. And Wadehn says that when her female founder circle in Berlin compares notes and the types of questions they’re asked by investors of "the justifications we had to give, proof that we have to give, that we actually had to go more than one extra mile”.
92% believe VCs aren’t doing enough to support women founders
The biggest thing the founders polled say could help change these dynamics is having more female investors and GPs making the decisions — who are still far outnumbered by male investors. “As an industry as a whole, we claim to be modern and innovative and so on, so I think it's absolutely key to have more female partners,” Nina Mayer (Rinke), a principal at Earlybird, tells Sifted.
Other changes that founders surveyed by Antler suggest include publicly sharing data about the number of women in portfolio companies and including parental leave policies in deal terms.
“I think the problem is so systemic and… the bias runs so deep that it's gonna take a while to get above them,” Stephanie von Behr, cofounder and managing director of Founderland, a nonprofit providing resources for women and women of colour entrepreneurs, tells Sifted.
She says they’re currently developing an AI-powered pitch tool to help prepare women founders for the types of questions they’ll likely field from investors.