Analysis

May 31, 2024

Do we need to get nannies to build unicorns?

The Nordics is renowned for providing generous parental leave — but is it a cause for its lack of female-founded unicorns?

Mimi Billing

3 min read

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The Nordics is one of the regions with the most unicorns per capita. It is also the most family-friendly region in Europe, with a global reputation for treating men and women equally.

But it's no better than the average in Europe when it comes to VC funding of female-founded startups. That’s often put down to a bias among investors towards male founders — and the quick fix has been to hire more female investors.

However, even female investors I’ve spoken to (who very much want to back more female entrepreneurs) say the sheer volume of male-founded startups to pick from makes it hard to limit oneself to funding women entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, VCs — whether male or female —  want to invest in startups that could become unicorns.

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So, after writing about the tech scene for almost 10 years, and spending perhaps too many hours looking into the situation for female founders in Sweden, the answer to why the Nordics have so few female-founded unicorns is still eluding me.

At an event in Stockholm on Wednesday, the Northzone partner PJ Pärson, offered a somewhat refreshing take on it.

He believes the Nordics’ very generous parental leave could be one reason for the lack of female-founded unicorns. In Sweden, for example, parents are allowed up to 18 months of paid leave to look after their newborns. The choice of how much leave each parent takes is up to the family (women, on average, take most of it) and because of that paid parental leave, daycare facilities won’t accept children under one year.

“There is a higher proportion of female entrepreneurs who go above and beyond almost everywhere than in the Nordics for some reason,” he said on stage. “I think it's cultural. We create a lot of expectations that women should stay at home for nine months after giving birth.”

He advised female founders who have their minds set on building big VC-backed companies to “consider getting a nanny”.

As you can imagine, not everyone was impressed by that advice — and after local media site Breakit wrote up his comments, Pärson says he was flooded by comments.

He thinks it’s a storm in a teacup.

“This was part of a wider discussion on stage and it is hard to put it in the right context, but the focus was on building VC-backed unicorns, where the demands are much higher than building a bootstrapped startup or similar,” Pärson told me.

He compares the parental leave in the Nordics to the US, where women have just eight weeks of maternity leave.

“If women in the US decide to stay home longer than that, they’re often seen as slackers,” he says.

As a mother of two living in Sweden, I can see how mothers not staying home for six months (at least) are frowned upon in this country. The pressure to be a good mother, whatever that means, is unavoidable. And can you be “a good mother” while building a unicorn? I’m not sure.

Whether you agree with Pärson — who thinks childcare is just one part of the puzzle — or not, the problem exists. We should all give more thought to the structures that may help or hinder women from building our next Mistral, Klarna or Northvolt.

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What do you think?

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Mimi Billing

Mimi Billing is Sifted's Europe editor. She covers the Nordics and healthtech, and can be found on X and LinkedIn