YPO conducted in March the 2021 YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey in partnership with the Financial Times and the United Nation’s HeForShe initiative to gather insight on how women are faring in the C-suite. The poll, sent to all YPO members, drew responses from 2,079 chief executives, ages 24 to 92, from 106 countries. Among them, 23% were women. The respondents run businesses with annual revenue from USD10 million to more than USD1 billion in more than 30 industries.  

YPO’s CEO Insights asked Allison Long Pettine, Managing Partner of the private-investment firm Ridge Group Investments and Founder of the venture fund Crescent Ridge Partners, for her reaction to the survey results. Pettine has experience in both venture capital and entrepreneurship. In 2018, she co-founded and still runs Ad Astra Ventures, a fund that focuses on investing in female founders, with the goal of addressing the gender imbalances in society. Previously, she was Founding Partner at SEED San Diego, a regional-based venture investment group, and Co-founder of Lymber, maker of a dynamic-pricing technology for fitness studios, which was sold to MindBody in 2017. Pettine started her career as one of the first employees of a medical device startup. Outside of work, she is the mother of two children.  

Here are some of Pettine’s thoughts on the survey findings.  

Women face headwinds at the start of their careers  

YPO’s data shines a light on some of the blatant obstacles to women’s ability to become CEOs that stem from societal expectations based on their gender. It also underlines how invisible this challenge is to male leaders. Almost half of female respondents (47%) noted that cultural expectations related to gender were an obstacle, as compared to fewer than 2% of males who responded to the survey.  

As this survey shows, many women find they have to go against what is expected of them by society to pursue something they feel passionate about or qualified to do. Men, on the other hand, have the benefit of tailwinds, with becoming a CEO a natural progression of their career as society would see it.  
There are no easy solutions to this, but as a first step we need to do more to acknowledge and address unconscious bias toward women leaders. As an investor, I’ve long been aware that it is significantly harder for women CEOs to raise startup capital. But though I am a woman and an advocate for women, I realized in 2017, five years after founding Crescent Ridge Partners, that only two of the 25 startups we had backed at that time were founded by women.  

I dug very deep to try to understand why, despite my intentions to support and treat women fairly. I now believe it is because as investors, we tend to “pattern match” when evaluating entrepreneurs who are pitching us. The reality is that way more men than women were pitching me. And because women act and think differently from men and make different decisions than they do, they don’t fit our expectations of what a “traditional” (aka male) serious entrepreneur would do. And in cases when women say the exact same things as men in the same tone of voice, we tend to dismiss it as inauthentic. 

To try to turn this around, we started Ad Astra Ventures, which is focused on backing high-achieving female founders who are building both scalable and sustainable companies — an area where women have historically excelled. Our goal is to meet women where they are. Given that women often deliver a bigger return to investors than men, even while raising less capital, we don’t want these founders to start doing things the way their male counterparts do. 

Unpaid work is bogging women down  

One factor that contributes to women’s decisions when it comes to their career is the heavy burden of unpaid household labor they do. The biggest obstacle women face in achieving gender parity, according to female respondents, is the burden of unpaid work they have, including childcare and household responsibilities, due to traditional gender roles (18%), followed by unconscious bias (11%). In heterosexual couples, household responsibilities fall unequally on the woman, often forcing women to choose between home and work.   

Some women have supportive husbands and partners who share in a substantial amount of the workload and also have access to high-quality childcare that allows them to pursue their careers with much less strain. However, we can’t assume these resources are the norm. And regardless of how much support they have at home, most women in couples bear the “mental load” of running the household, whether it is responding to emails from school, setting up family vaccinations or coordinating carpools. The skills that allow them to do this are an asset — one that helps them excel as leaders of a company.

Furthermore, the qualities that they develop as mothers and nurturers prime them to build sustainable, mission-driven firms. So far, though, there is little recognition of their experience as caretakers having any relevance to being a successful entrepreneur in the investment community.  

Women are more likely to sacrifice career advancement for family needs 

The survey found that 73% of women respondents versus 42% of male respondents took leave or sacrificed career advancement because of family needs. At the same time, 60% of women respondents have taken maternity leave, while only 13% of men have taken paternity leave. It’s no wonder we don’t have more female CEOs, if they are opting to prioritize family over work.  

The million-dollar question here is why isn’t prioritizing family seen as a positive thing for society? Why are women penalized if they want to prioritize their family for a certain period of time and then return to the workforce? Why do some women feel they can’t have children at all if they want to pursue a career?  

There are no easy answers as to how to change this, but we need to start looking for creative solutions, so women feel more comfortable taking time off — without fear of career repercussions. Fortunately, we do see more young men taking paternity leave, which could set a new tone for the workplace of the future. In the entrepreneurial world, it’s hard to take time off, period, but that’s mostly because of business culture. And fortunately, that’s something we can change for the better, so more women can make it to the C-suite or the helm of their own, well-funded companies.