Women leaders are running more than 10 per cent of Fortune 500 companies for the first time in history.
This transformation in leadership at Fortune 500 companies comes after that number stayed stuck at 8 per cent for a long time.
However, when it comes to private companies and startups, it remains a male-dominated industry.
While globally men dominate the startup world, there is a shift happening in countries like the Netherlands.
A creative climate that supports and fosters female leadership, Dutch startups are now increasingly being founded by women or a diverse team.
On Women’s Day, we spoke to multiple female startup founders to understand the state of female entrepreneurship in the Netherlands, gender diversity, pay gap, and more.
The Netherlands fosters female entrepreneurs
Speaking to female Dutch startup founders, it becomes clear that the Netherlands has an environment conducive to success.
The Netherlands has taken significant steps to promote and support female entrepreneurship.
“There have been positive developments, including increased government support and greater awareness and recognition of the importance of women’s entrepreneurship,” says Carla Snepvangers, co-founder of Winc Academy.
This change is also reflected in the data. The absolute number of female entrepreneurs in the Netherlands has grown by 62 per cent from 2013 to 2022, according to the Dutch Chamber of Commerce.
There are now a number of Dutch government and private initiatives that reduce the gender gap by supporting women-led startups.
Julia Mitereva, co-founder of Fashion Potluck, Greek.Social, and Founders Mesh, says, “From my own experience working in the tech industry in the Netherlands for six years, I’ve seen positive changes happening in terms of promoting female entrepreneurship and supporting women-led startups.”
While the environment for female entrepreneurship has become better, Charlotte Melkert, co-Founder & CEO of Equalture, feels it has not improved in every way.
“There are more and more startups being founded and/or led by women, which is a positive sign,” she says.
Talking to these Dutch startup founders, it is clear that the Netherlands has made a great stride in creating presence for female founders but equal opportunity in terms of funding is a different ballgame.
Difficult funding environment
“Easy is not an applicable term,” says Mitereva when asked about raising funds at early-stage.
She says it has never been easy to raise funds as a female entrepreneur and remains one of the biggest challenges.
According to Techleap.nl’s State of Dutch Tech report, only 0.7 per cent of VC funding in the Netherlands went to female-only founder teams while a total of €2.6B was invested in Dutch startups in 2022.
“The female-founders out there are less likely to receive funding or receive smaller amounts than male founders,” says Graciëlla van Vliet, founder and CEO of Closure.
However, not everyone has had a hard time finding investors or raising funds.
“Our experiences with Equalture have always been very positive, although I am very aware of the fact that this doesn’t apply to everyone,” says Melkert.
Jacqueline van den Ende, founder and CEO of Carbon Equity, says raising funds at an early-stage is network dependent.
“Me and my co-founders at Carbon Equity had an easy time raising our pre-seed and seed rounds,” she says.
As a female machine learning engineer and former lieutenant, Graciëlla says “There have been little situations in which I have been explicitly disadvantaged because of my gender.”
Melkert adds that early-stage funding has declined due to recent economic developments, making it harder for all startups and even more for female-led startups.
“My observation is that typically women are less well networked than men,” says Jacqueline and adds that with 90 per cent of angel investors and VCs being men, it is a big obstacle to raise seed or angel funding.
Mitereva adds that raising funds has become even harder in the past years with rounds becoming smaller and the process taking longer.
“Additionally, it’s always been hard and close to impossible for non-Dutch founders to raise funds in the Netherlands,” she adds.
The funding environment remains challenging for women not only in the Netherlands but also in Europe.
According to Atomico’s State of European Tech report, 87 per cent of all VC funding in Europe is still being raised by men-only founding teams.
The report also shows that the proportion of funding raised by women-only teams has dropped from 3 per cent to 1 per cent since 2018.
“To break old habits, we sometimes need to implement unconventional measures,” adds Carla Snepvangers.
Impact leaders at the helm
A Founderland report showed that nearly 45 per cent of the world’s social entrepreneurs are female.
“It does not surprise me that women entrepreneurs are leading the impact startup world,” says Janet Nieboer, CEO of ROM InWest, which recently backed Dutch startup tex.tracer working on a transparent fashion ecosystem.
The Dutch female founders agree that women leaders are motivated by the desire to create a positive change in the world.
“I believe that businesses have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good,” says Snepvangers. “I am passionate about using entrepreneurship as a tool to drive social and environmental progress.”
Charlotte Melkert says she would never be able to build a company with a clear focus on impact.
“We’re living in a world in which dozens of fundamental societal problems are crossing each other’s paths at the same time, from climate change to gender inequality & from war to racial discrimination,” she says before adding, “Without acting now, the consequences will be irreversible.”
Carbon Equity’s Jacqueline van den Ende agrees with the report observing that there are more female founders in the impact space.
“Personally I am much more motivated to solve a problem that has a positive impact for people and the planet – than only to make money,” she says.
“What motivates me about Closure is that our proposition is intellectually challenging ánd generates positive impact at the same time,” adds Graciëlla.
She, however, believes that there is a need to stop painting the image of female entrepreneurship being some kind of corporate social responsibility.
“Closure is no charity. It’s the result of identifying a business opportunity that we believed was rather unique,” she adds.
“Women often start companies because they want to make a difference in the world,” says Julia Mitereva.
She says female entrepreneurs are drawn to companies or ideas where they can make a positive impact on the world, whether it’s addressing social or environmental challenges.
“Another reason why women are drawn to impact startups is that in order to succeed, they need to create companies that are truly meaningful,” she adds.
Speaking of impact startups, Melkert makes an important observation noting that not only entrepreneurs but even investors are starting to realise their importance.
“Impact-driven startups used to be a nice-to-have couple of years ago. Today, they are becoming an absolute must-have,” she says.
Milou Klooster, founder and CEO of RTI Blockchain says, “Women entrepreneurs often bring a unique perspective and set of skills to the table that can be particularly well-suited to impact-driven startups.”
“Women tend to be more collaborative, empathetic, and focused on building strong relationships, which can be essential when working on complex social and environmental challenges,” she adds.
With impact startups increasingly being led by women and investors seeing them as a must have in their portfolio, it could become the accelerator of female entrepreneurship.
Need for diversity and eliminating gender pay gap
While there are now more women at the helm of Fortune 500 companies and founding new startups, the industry is not without its fair share of problems.
The problems that need to be addressed sooner than later are eliminating gender pay gap and creating a diverse tech ecosystem.
Gender pay gap is a situation where people from different genders but with equal ability and experience doing the same job get paid differently.
“I think it is often due to differences in the way men and women negotiate,” says Jacqueline and thinks there is a need for a software solution to automatically detect such wage gaps based on gender or broader diversity data.
Mitereva calls gender pay gap a complex topic with “no single solution to fix it.”
She says a law requiring companies to report on their gender pay gap, conducting regular pay equity audits, and addressing any disparities found can be a solution.
Closure’s Graciëlla wants to leave the onus for eliminating gender pay gap on employers by preventing any unexplainable pay gap, including one caused by gender.
“We proactively talk with our team about wages, and don’t deviate based on how strong someone’s negotiation skills are, but instead value based on transparent pay policies that clearly define compensation levels,” she says.
Klooster adds, “The gender pay gap is a persistent challenge in the tech industry and beyond, and it is essential to address it to promote gender equality and fairness in the workplace.”
Melkert agrees with Graciëlla and says, “Every employee in every company should always have the right to know salary ranges of different positions and different seniority levels.”
Carla Snepvangers adds that less than 20 per cent of the current tech workforce consists of women.
She sees a solution by “consistently promoting the simple idea of equal opportunities for all.”
They also agree that having gender diversity data could help propel change in how companies hire.
Snepvangers argues for a need to be genuinely unbiased and “hire or promote based on skills, culture fit, and potential by making no difference between genders.”
“We would very much like to hire female – or other diverse – tech talent, but it’s just hard to find them,” explains Graciëlla. “We internally taught one of our early team members how to code, and is now a full-time developer in our company.”
To encourage more women to join tech, Winc Academy has a programme called Winc for Women Scholarship with a total budget of €400,000 in scholarship.
“Our scholarship is designed for so-called reskill courses – long courses to learn a new skill set to start a new career in either coding, digital marketing, data analytics or Salesforce,” adds Snepvangers.
“It is my strong conviction that we need a diverse team in impact startups to accelerate the transitions of our time,” says Nieboer.
As a VC helping companies in the North Holland, ROM InWest has backed three female-led startups since 2021 and Nieboer says having a diverse and inclusive leadership is one of the criterias.
A report by TNW reveals that female founders call for data and more diverse investor landscape in Dutch startup ecosystem.
The female founders want to see data regarding ethnicity and gender nonbinary diversity, which hardly exists in Europe.
“We want to see more diversity and inclusion in the Dutch ecosystem overall, not just for International Women’s Day. One way that we as TNW can contribute to a bigger representation of female founders is making sure that they and their companies are represented at TNW Conference,” says Myrthe van der Erve, CEO of TNW.
End of male vs female entrepreneurship
Charlotte Melkert wants to see an end to emphasis being made around male and female entrepreneurship. She says such emphasis creates the perception that they are different.
“In my opinion, there’s zero difference between male and female entrepreneurship,” she says, adding “leadership has nothing to do with your gender.”
Jacqueline van den Ende also sees a need to use a gender neutral language and stop referring to entrepreneurs, CEOs, engineers or investors as “He” by default.
“Paying attention to the gender bias in our language and adjusting this to use gender neutral language can help create a more gender inclusive environment,” she says.
Klooster says a change should come from all stakeholders, “including companies, employees, government agencies as well as people in your own (close) surroundings, in their view on women’s responsibility as caregivers and mothers.”
Both Graciëlla van Vliet and Julia Mitereva argue for the need to introduce flexible work arrangements to support women’s work-life balance.
“As long as women are the ones to give birth, promoting flexible work arrangements and policies that support work-life balance could help remove barriers that often hold women back from advancing into leadership roles,” says Graciëlla.
Mitereva adds, “By creating a workplace that is more supportive of women’s needs and priorities can open doors to many talented women and foster women’s leadership across industries.”
Nieboer says, “Unconscious bias is a challenge we need to overcome when weighing the professionality of the leadership of a startup.”
There is a systemic need for an atmosphere where leadership isn’t stereotypically masculine.
“I think that girls should learn and see that leadership is equally about social skills and inspiring your people to grow stronger and be more secure about what they do and who they are at work,” says Alison, Head of Education at Winc Academy.
Amidst all the uncertainties, it is arguably an exciting time to work in tech. With every company becoming a technology company, there is an opportunity to upend billions of lives at once and create a lasting impact.
However, to make it a reality, there is a need to create an environment where women are supported for their ideas and skills and allowed to lead within the sector.
This Women’s Day could be the stepping stone in bringing about that change. “Give adults the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to challenge their gender biases and normalise female leadership throughout children’s education,” says Daphne, head of data and product at Winc Academy.