Investors are more likely to say yes to a startup pitch from a man, over a woman, according to new research from Harvard Business School, Wharton and MIT Sloan. And, the more attractive the woman, the worse her chances of hooking a VC, the study finds.
“The way venture capitalists make selections is quite a long, complicated process. It’s more like falling in love than choosing an investment,” says MIT Sloan Associate Dean of Innovation Fiona Murray, one of the researchers.
According to Murray, today only 10% of U.S. venture capital is going to women-led businesses. This was one reason the research was needed, she says.
“There are two obvious explanations: Women don’t ask, or they ask but have different businesses that don’t need as much money or aren’t as appealing … We wanted to see if there were more subconscious biases,” says Murray.
For the experiment, over 500 participants watched two real-life pitch presentation videos. The actual entrepreneurs behind the startups weren’t featured, however, as the researchers dubbed in male and female voices.
Although the male and female narrators read the same pitch, the investors felt the startup was more valuable when the pitch was presented by a man. More than 68% of the participants decided to fund the startup when a man narrated the pitch. However, less than 32% of investors decided to invest when the same exact pitch was given by a woman.
“There was a significant gender gap,” says Murray, putting it lightly.
The team also examined the effect of attractiveness in the pitch room. To do so, Murray says the researchers played the pitch videos and superimposed images of the “entrepreneurs” giving the pitch. The images included conventionally attractive and unattractive men and women.
Those considered “attractive” male entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to receive funding than “unattractive” ones. On a scale of 1-7, with 7 being very likely to invest, participants gave the attractive male entrepreneur a 5.21, while the unattractive male entrepreneur received a 4.59.
But good looks didn’t help the women when it came to convincing investors. “The ones who fared worst were attractive women,” says Murray.
The researchers found that the less attractive female entrepreneur received a 4.35 on the 7-point scale, which is a lower score than the unattractive male entrepreneur. And the attractive female entrepreneur? She received the weakest score: 4.14.
What This Research Means for Women Entrepreneurs
Murray admits that the results of this study are rather depressing to women entrepreneurs, but is hopeful that research of this nature can be a game-changer.
“The first thing is to reveal subconscious biases, and then we can work on them,” says Murray.
In the meantime, however, Murray says all is not lost for would-be women entrepreneurs looking to secure funding.
“If you are facing subconscious bias, you need to be even better, which is very old advice,” says Murray. “The more polished you are, the better.”
And when it comes to pitch presentations, Murray says practice really does make perfect.
“It’s especially important … to have that calm and confident command of the room,” she says. “But it does put the burden on the women entrepreneurs.”