How I did it: Dealing with gender bias as a female business owner

By Michelle van Schouwen

Times have changed since I started my first company way back in 1985. Gender bias was open and pervasive back in the day. A young woman running a company – and being the public face of that company – was a curiosity to many. Being petite and fairly attractive in my twenties only made me seem more an anomaly. Yes, I worked with my husband at the time (he was our creative and technical director – but I ran business development, client management and company finance… and was the person outsiders most often met). So, hearing “Oh, you work for your husband?” set my teeth on edge every one of the forty zillion times someone said it.

2019 is better, SO much better than 1985 for women running companies. However, meaningful bias lingers, and women business owners (as well as other non-cis-white-male entrepreneurs) must be savvy about the barriers that remain.

I’ll share my story.

Historically, I dealt with gender bias in my own unschooled but bold way. Meaning, I went it alone. (Later, I became more aware of the value of teaming with other women in business and community endeavors, to stave off, share tactics and even be able to laugh about some of the craziness that emerges from working in a male-dominated marketplace, political arena and you-name-it.)

So, here’s how I made it through the bias gauntlet. Early on, I decided to “recognize but generally ignore” bias whenever I could, and to eventually kick it aside in every instance with my and my company’s talent and performance, and, finally, to call out bias when it was so awful that it couldn’t be treated like the perpetrator’s unfortunate case of body odor or gas.

Please know – by ignore I really DON’T mean being blind. Every few days, I’d walk into a room of pocket-protected male executives or engineers and, recognize either surprise or dismissal at the concept that I, female as Eve, dared to lead the team that proposed to market their so-complicated technical product or service. Yeah, I’d show them, I’d vow. I enjoyed doing a great job in every meeting, especially those initial ones in which trust hadn’t yet been established. I was (virtually!) always prepared and, as we moved forward with plans and execution, I’d see them relax, engage, and get over the fact that I wore a skirt. I’d strive to be treated first and foremost as an expert. I’d accept nothing less.

And I’d charge them what they’d expect to pay a male-owned company. That was important, and often a battle.

In relatively benign cases, certainly back when women running companies seemed more novel, bias was often born of ignorance or inexperience. I suspect that, often, it still is. When a client, customer or vendor sees that the women with whom they are dealing are smart, dedicated, have follow-through and are honest, they’ll usually make mental space for them.


However, bias, in the worst cases, is rooted in deep prejudice. In the case of malignant gender bias, it may be the result of a lifetime of being the Alpha and a refusal to yield an ounce of that power. When needed, I address the obvious. Sometimes it begins with education, as in, “I’ve done this work successfully with clients including [multiple name drops]” to assert expertise. Sometimes I’ve needed to say, “Yes, the industry/marketplace IS changing, I get it” to try showing a little empathy. Occasionally that helps.

And at times, I’ve felt I must call a man out on repeated or offensive putdowns, sexual innuendos or (rarely) harassment. In these cases, it is also often time to move on, with or without reporting someone to a company superior (if there is any). Life is too short to deal with jerks.

So… those have been my one-on-one ways of dealing with specific gender bias situations.

On a more global scale, I believe in mentoring other women, especially younger ones, to help create a generation even more confident, competent and unphased by the remaining Luddite men. I also want men in my employ to understand that women bosses don’t have to be the stereotypical Iron Woman – or an overly soft touch, either. I enjoy supporting young entrepreneurs, including women, people of color and other less-represented groups.

I’ve made mistakes along the way. Where I missed the boat for years was in failing to commune and collaborate with other women business owners to build friendships, strategies and support networks. When I started out in my small city, that network was very small, but it grew and is now a vibrant opportunity for women business owners.

Whether my damn-the-torpedoes approach to dealing with gender bias can work for my readers is an open question. I hope in some cases it will, and so share it for the business owners and entrepreneurs who figure that “go for it” is as good a slogan as any. Adjust as needed.



Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate change mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship ,and works with start-ups to support their development.


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