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Women in VC

For female founders, even a Ph.D. doesn’t close the gender funding gap

Advanced degrees are commonly thought of as a pipeline to a successful startup venture. But for women, academic success hasn’t translated into founder status.

Female startup founders are less likely than their male peers to have a master’s or doctoral degree.

That’s despite decades of progress in which women have lapped men in academic achievement: Among American citizens and permanent residents, women earned 65% of master’s degrees and 58% of doctoral degrees in 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But when it comes to starting tech companies, 36% of North American female founders have an advanced degree, compared to 41% of male founders, PitchBook data shows.

 

The persistent gender disparities are linked to several factors. Women are underrepresented in STEM fields, they have less proximity to “inventor” Ph.D. advisers, and networks of female entrepreneurs and investors are smaller, contributing to confidence gaps for prospective female founders.

Women are severely underrepresented among the ranks of doctoral candidates for STEM disciplines like robotics (14.6%), computer science (19.5%), and biophysics (24.6%), according to 2020 figures from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Despite making up the majority of master’s degree recipients, women comprised 41% of students enrolled in the top 56 MBA programs in the US in 2022. Non-technical founders often use MBA programs—and the alumni networks and entrepreneurial courses they offer—as a route into the startup world.

Women who do pursue technical or business degrees face additional obstacles to launching a startup, investors and peer-reviewed studies say.

Fewer women students become new inventors during their doctoral training, in part because they are less likely to be matched with top inventor advisers and their innovation skills are more likely to be undervalued, according to a 2023 study by MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Copenhagen Business School.

Proximity to a network of mentors and a founder community are often critical in pushing women entrepreneurs to take the leap of faith to launch a startup, according to Vivien Ho, a partner at Pear VC who runs the firm’s Female Founders Circle, a founder workshop for women with STEM backgrounds.

“Even if you have a STEM advanced degree, you might not think, ‘Yeah I’m a founder.’ But if you’re surrounded by people who are also starting companies, then you might ask, ‘Why can’t I do this also?’” said Ho.

The challenges for female founders launching successful startups are further exacerbated by unconscious biases among investors at the earliest stages of fundraising, a process which involves pitching a story, and often by extension, oneself.

“It’s a huge blindspot: People are connected to people who look like them,” said Lorine Pendleton, partner at Rising America Funds I and II, which invest in underrepresented founders.

But Pendleton, who recently launched a new entertainment- and sports-focused fund, 125 Ventures, is optimistic that the funding gap will narrow: “There’s a lot of women [investors] who are putting their money where their mouth is.”

Featured image by Picture alliance/Getty Images

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