The Scarlet Letter of Dating Is 'E' (as in Entrepreneur)
Wendi Goldsmith, the CEO of Bioengineering Group, in Salem, Massachusetts, didn't get a single bite when she tried online dating after her divorce in 2003. Then she made one change to her profile, and the responses streamed in.
The one change? She stopped referring to herself as an entrepreneur.
It is conventional wisdom that gender stereotypes impede women who are trying to raise money or tap industry networks. Female entrepreneurs are often unfairly perceived as less serious, less aggressive, more likely to put family before business. But in the years I've been talking to entrepreneurs, I've discovered an opposite and equally insidious stereotype that is battering women's romantic prospects. The same woman who can't persuade a VC she's tough enough to build a business can't persuade a guy she's sweet enough to build a relationship.
I have heard the same story countless times from single female CEOs. Typically, women view men who exhibit the classic entrepreneurial traits of grit, tenacity, strength, and leadership as desirable partners. Men, by contrast, may view women with those traits as bossy or suspect they will have trouble compromising or settling into domestic bliss. "I've had people describe me as a professional shark," one female entrepreneur told me. "You can imagine how a man doesn't want to think that's who he's climbing into bed with."
We've come a long way from those Mad Men days when the only "career gals" were secretaries and stewardesses who served men in the workplace, then quit for the chance to serve them at home. The genders are approaching parity in many professions, and 21st-century men seem to desire equality in their relationships as well. But sustaining an equal relationship with an entrepreneur is tough. Entrepreneurs refuse to conform to expectations, are comfortable making unilateral decisions, and reflexively put their needs--or the needs of their companies, which amounts to the same thing--first. Men have a nose for a potential power imbalance. If one does crop up during the relationship, they don't want to be caught on the wrong side of it.
And because archetypes are, by definition, embedded in our psyches and in the culture, some men are still put off by women who call the shots. The problem isn't isolated to the older generation. Women in their 20s have also bemoaned the situation. One such woman is Heather Saffer, owner of Dollop Gourmet Frosting in Penfield, New York. "Although men say they like the idea of a driven, ambitious woman, they don't necessarily know how to handle her independent nature, intensity, and attentiveness toward her business," said Heather, who is 29. "Men I date like the novelty initially but eventually tell me they can't imagine a life with someone like me."
Of course, there are plenty of female entrepreneurs in satisfying relationships and right-thinking men who love them. (One or two women told me their profession actually helped by draining the dating pool of all but serious prospects.) Such couples are to be congratulated on their happiness. And I won't be surprised if I receive indignant letters from a few in response to this column. But I do suspect that they are the exception rather than the rule.
Wendi Goldsmith's experience is more typical of what I've been hearing. After striking out with an online dating profile that described her as a "geologist and entrepreneur," she changed the wording to just "geologist," and her batting average improved significantly. "Men want the warm, fuzzy woman and not the one they think wields a hatchet," Wendi told me. "Many men are uncomfortable with, intimidated by, and ill equipped to handle a powerful woman. People assume that those with power aren't necessarily nice, and women are supposed to be nice."
Wendi didn't end up with any of the men she dated through that site. Instead, she married Brian Balukonis, whom she'd met through an engineering association 15 years earlier. During those years they had rarely discussed business, and Brian had no idea when they started dating how successful and demanding Wendi's company had become. That ignorance turned out to be fortuitous. "If I had known she was a successful entrepreneur, I would have been a little intimidated and unsure about pursuing her romantically," Brian told me.
"Ideally, someone gets to know you as a person before you wear the scarlet letter of an entrepreneur," Wendi said.
Of course, accomplished women in any profession risk a similar response. But female entrepreneurs point out key differences between themselves and their peers in other high-powered pursuits. For one thing, traditionally employed women often have predictable schedules. Even a surgeon or a senator can frequently wrangle free evenings or weekends. Not so the entrepreneur, who is the first responder to any company crisis and the last to turn off the office lights. In addition, a woman in a corporate environment who answers to a boss may simply be less scary to men. As one female CEO put it, "Just the word CEO is more intimidating than HR manager at XCorp."
A more critical difference is the expectation--in men's minds, at least--that conventionally employed girlfriends or wives can walk away from their jobs, or at least cut back their hours, if the relationship or family life demands it. Ironically, the same concern over women's priorities that hurts them with investors also hurts them with romantic partners. Investors worry that female entrepreneurs will sacrifice their businesses for their personal lives. Prospective boyfriends worry they will make the opposite choice.
Sometimes a man grows impatient with a woman's preoccupations because he discounts the value of her business. "When a guy owns a business, people think he's Mark Zuckerberg," says Nancy A. Shenker, CEO of theONswitch, a marketing strategy firm in Yonkers, New York. "A woman says she owns her own business, and people think she's stringing beads in her basement."
So what do they do, these women looking for love with that scarlet letter E emblazoned on their chests? Sadly, some feel compelled to act the part they think a prospective partner desires. Feeling guilty that their leisure time is so limited, they let their dates call the shots about where to go and what to do. They don't arrive at dinner crowing because they nailed an account or buzzing about expansion opportunities. As one female CEO put it, "Entrepreneurs can be intimidating, and I don't want to intimidate. In order to date, one needs to keep the true self hidden."
Others refuse to make such compromises. They don't consider entrepreneurship to be a preexisting condition, something for which they should be penalized. Rather, it is something for which they deserve respect. In these women's view, their ambitions, their busyness, the magnitude of their challenges, and the number of people who depend on them position them to raise their own romantic standards. In the dating game, they demand partners who both want to and are able to keep up. "We have a construct in our culture, that someone needs to be the boss," says Carissa Reiniger, founder and CEO of Silver Lining, a software company based in New York City. "Maybe in business that's so, but not in a good relationship. I want my equal."
Perhaps the best advice for single entrepreneurs is to treat dating like starting a company. Cast a wide net when seeking opportunities. Be willing to negotiate, but never sacrifice your core principles. And hope you find a customer who truly appreciates all you have to offer.
MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist
Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.