We need more Black Widows and fewer Wonder Women

diversity founder experience Feb 01, 2022
A store covered in posters with a wonder woman statue outside

Superhero movies are arguably the defining cultural form of our times. They have dominated cinema release schedules for twenty years. Disney has 15 more Marvel movies in production, and we will soon kick off yet another cycle of Batman films. The densely populated Marvel and DC universes mean there are plenty more characters and plots to mine, even before the inevitable re-makes. The genre’s ongoing popularity is a mystery until you realise they are a kind of modern mythology, for audiences who find Zeus and the pantheon of classical gods too remote for their 21st Century existence. This is a shame, because they are missing out on a more varied and entertaining storytelling canon, where not every dispute is settled with a punch. What is most interesting about superhero films is what they tell us about our times. Our need for fantasy escapism. For heroes to save humankind from the myopia of media despair. For constant revisiting and reinventing the familiar, rather than discovering something new. Psychologists might argue there was a lack of happiness and confidence here. But we’re not psychologists, so we’ll leave that there.

One of the most interesting films in recent years is Wonder Woman 1984. It is the sequel to Wonder Woman, which was applauded for giving prominence to a female protagonist. It is a troubling film, where the heroine falls in love and the most heroic figure is a man, who commits the ultimate sacrifice to save the world (because Wonder Woman couldn’t do it alone). The sequel should have been better because she was free to do what superheroes do. But it opens with her still pining for her lost love 70 years later, while living a secret life tackling minor street crime. As soon as something major happens, her man is resurrected to guide her, and, again, makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the world. Wonder Woman wins the day, but only after she is overwhelmed by a stiff breeze.

Superhero fans may love it, but what does this say about our view of women in society? The Wonder Woman character was created by men for men, to battle Nazis in a sparkly costume. They didn’t see that coming. But even so, in this day and age, the character should at least be empowered to be independently wondrous. We learn that her hero and the most heroic Amazonian warrior of them all, allowed herself to beaten to death by hundreds of baying men. That’s a far cry from the male equivalent, the blood soaked carnage of the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. Wonder Woman is a female icon and role model, but is this the kind of icon and role model we really want?      

Hollywood no doubt congratulates itself on a newly minted female superhero franchise for female audiences. Superhero movies generally attract a 60:40 male to female ratio audience. This skewed slightly higher for Wonder Woman, 52:48. It also passed the infamous Bechdel test, which measures whether there are two female characters who speak about something not related to a man. 43% of all films assessed since 1985 fail this test(!), as did 27% of 2021 releases. But this is not a remotely feminist film and does as much damage as good. Visual representation and role modelling matter because they shape generational perceptions and behaviours. Only by modelling the society we want will eventually achieve something approximating it. These films are seen by up to 20% adults and an awful lot of kids. What are the lessons that both men and women, the vast majority of them aged under 30, are supposed to take from seeing such a film?

Wonder Woman 1984 reflects the current status and representation of female entrepreneurship. There are plenty of female entrepreneurs. But they are being held back by male-influenced perceptions. We have previously mentioned the continuing funding disparity between male and female founders, which is totally at odds with the data. Female-led companies generate more revenue and have similar rates of exit despite being only to raise a fraction of the funding (2.4% over the last 30 years). There is something bigger going on here than the structural gender imbalance in VC firms. There is a wider cultural and social impediment.

The media representation of female founders is frequently found wanting, ignoring or trivialising their achievements. One study discovered a ‘paper ceiling’ to go alongside the glass one, where ‘men are mentioned more often than women at a rate of around 13 mentions per article, and more than one third of articles include at least one male mention but no female mentions.’ The media exhibits ‘masculinized normative model of the “male entrepreneur”’. Another showed that features focused on women selling traditionally female products and services or upmarket luxury goods. The founders were all rooted in their domestic and family life, and required innately ‘female skills’. This not just a UK phenomenon. In Germany, female entrepreneurs have long been portrayed as 'Surfing on the ironing board'.

This is the default mode society has been conditioned to picture. It needs to be reprogrammed urgently. A 2020 World Economic Forum paper on boosting female entrepreneurship called for a 30% pledge in venture funding. Perhaps more significantly they also called for a 30% media airtime pledge, where ‘women will comprise at least 30% of the experts they put on air and quote in articles, and conference organizers ensure that at least 30% of panellists are women.’ This would be a huge stride forward, but the last time I checked women made up 49.6% of the population. Shouldn’t the target split be 50:50? If you want to correct an imbalance, you should arguably over- rather than under-compensate.

Venture Capitalists are not immune to these cultural influences. One of the more surprising academic studies is that VCs favour pitches from attractive men. Highly attractive men are much more likely to be successful than unattractive men, who in turn are far more likely to get funding that unattractive women. The worst thing a female founder can be is highly attractive, as that is the profile least likely to succeed. VCs are not setting out to penalise female founders based on their appearance, but the evidence shows that they do. Why? This is unconscious bias in action.

Female entrepreneurship representation and role modelling need to improve. In the meantime, women will continue to do what they have always done: find a way of succeeding in spite of the obstacles. In the US 1,800 new businesses ate started every day by women. Of the 14m women-owned businesses, 75%+ are self-funded.

These female founders don’t need any more Wonder Woman films to inspire them because there is better female hero in town. Black Widow doesn’t need men to succeed and spends quite a lot of her time beating them up. She is more independent, heroic and capable. And she is exactly what the world’s male audiences – and VCs- need to see more of…

UP AND TO THE RIGHT.

 

Further reading:

https://www.bcg.com/publications/2018/why-women-owned-startups-are-better-bet

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587%2821%2900177-7/fulltext

https://www.pnas.org/content/111/12/4427

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