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'I Have to Prove That I Can Help Them Just as Well'

In equal partnerships, why are men still assumed to be the boss?
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As a female entrepreneur, Jessica Hirt doesn't always feel she's being taken seriously. She and her husband, Hannes Luth, founded Wunderbar Media, an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm that provides marketing strategies and media training. Although they are equal partners in the business, it is not uncommon for clients to ask to meet with Hannes. They assume he is the boss. 

"People don't think I know my stuff," said Jessica. "I have to prove that I can help them just as well." Jessica has to make her case "even in areas where my talents are stronger than Hannes's." She is surprised that some of her women clients exhibit this attitude as well.  

Jessica and Hannes are not strangers to gender bias. They encountered it in the corporate sphere in Europe, from which they emigrated in 2012. However "this is a challenge we didn't expect in the entrepreneurial world," Jessica said.  

It's disappointing that in 2014, with Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer bold-print names, women are still automatically assumed to be the subordinate members in business partnerships. That's true even when both spouses have worked hard to establish parity of authority--on paper and in the eyes of employees and customers. Part of the problem is tradition. In the past, when couples worked together in a family business, the wife usually played the role of secretary, bookkeeper, or general helpmeet. A friend of mine who was equal partners in a business she co-founded with her husband put it this way: "A woman's role in a co-owned business is usually unofficial. Most often, it's the woman who's busting her ass privately. Along the way I've had to tell people, 'Hello, I did this too!'"

Fortunately, Jessica and Hannes are committed to an equal partnership. And they want their customers to know it. So they came up with a strategy. Whenever they schedule a training session, they don't say which of them will lead it: clients might get either one. And since both spouses love conducting classes and doing presentations, they now do some of them together. It's a great way to showcase both their talents. As a result, clients have come to see that Jessica is just as great a force in the company as Hannes. "Now people know us," Jessica said. "And if we go into different areas and industries and encounter the same bias, we'll know how to handle it."

Gender bias can damage a woman entrepreneur's self-esteem, but it can also hurt the business and the marriage. Anxious to win and retain work, co-founding spouses might find themselves conforming to clients' expectations concerning their respective roles in the business. In the case of Hannes and Jessica, that would have meant letting him do most of the presentations and consigning her to a supporting role. Such a compromise could have been personally divisive. And it would certainly have prevented Wunderbar Media from offering its best possible service, which includes 100 percent of Jessica's talents.

Fortunately, the couple was not about to let that happen. Their creative solution enriches not only their clients, but their marriage as well.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 3, 2014

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 mhirshberg@inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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