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Not Bad For a Girl: Can Bias Give Women the Advantage?

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Lisa Abeyta

It was Sunday of a recent Startup Weekend event. Presentations had just wrapped up from the teams, and the judges were debating the merits and challenges of each pitch. The audience was drifting out of the auditorium, and I found myself chatting for a few moments with a colleague. I commented on the talents of a woman who was a mutual acquaintance, and his response completely took my by surprise. He said, "She isn't bad for a girl."

I didn't even try to hide my reaction. "Not bad for a girl? What does that even mean?"

"Just what I said. She's not bad for a girl."

He laughed.

I didn't.

"That is so sexist," I told him. We'd know each other long enough that I was comfortable taking him to task for his attitude.

"Yeah," he laughed. "It probably is. Oh, well, I'm OK with that." And with that, he walked away.

It wasn't the first sexist comment I'd heard during the weekend. One of the competitors had made the joke on Friday night that their team only had one girl on it, so they'd placed her in the best possible position... outside. He seemed surprised when the room filled with audible gasps rather than laughter. He quickly moved on to his pitch.

While this interaction definitely didn't rank up there with the horrific incidents that have happened at other conferences or to other women, I am still taken aback every time I am confronted with men who are not only comfortable but embrace sexist attitudes. Beyond the damage it does to women, it doesn't serve men well, either.

I am reminded of the time my daughter decided to compete in the high school pull up contest. She not only beat out all the girls, but every guy as well. The ROTC leader who was hosting the contest gave my daughter a huge trophy -- the one that was supposed to be for the guys. He shook her hand and told her she'd earned it. Most of the competitors didn't know that she was a nationally-ranked rock climber. Those young men had sized her up and dismissed her as any real competition because she was a small-framed girl. They had no idea she was stronger than all of them, and they'd severely misjudged her talents and strength. I still remember the look on her face when she walked through the door that day after school carrying a trophy half her size.

The next time you find the words "for a girl" going through your head when you're assessing a woman entrepreneur or businesswoman, you might want to ask yourself if your own sexism might cause you to greatly underestimate a woman's talents and strength. And if you find yourself on the receiving end of this attitude, it is worth considering that your opponents' sexism may actually be an advantage, allowing you to operate longer under the radar until it is too late for your competitor to catch up. While this outlook certainly does nothing to address the inequity of funding for women entrepreneurs, it is worth asking ourselves if we're going to face bias, if there are ways to turn it to our advantage.

You can find this and other posts by Lisa Abeyta at Mama CEO