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3 Unique Challenges Women CEOs Face Today

Female CEOs often have to deal with questions or problems that simply aren’t an issue for men.

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BY Quora - 23 Aug 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

What specific challenges do female CEOs and founders face today in the startup world? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Heidi Zak, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of ThirdLove, on Quora:

When you step into the role of CEO, the day-to-day workload, challenges, and rewards of the position are essentially the same for everyone.

It's not an easy role for anyone, and most CEOs--no matter their gender--have tight-knit groups that they rely on for support.

But there are also undeniable differences between being a male or a female CEO right now.

Men still dominate corporate boards, and an overwhelming majority of CEOs are men. While there are efforts underway to even the playing field, the reality is that female CEOs are the minority. And that minority status means that female CEOs often have to deal with questions or problems that simply aren't an issue for men.

I founded ThirdLove in 2012, and after six years of running a business, there are a few things I've noticed only women have to deal with:

1. Being pregnant while running a company.

Obviously, not all female CEOs experience this. But for the ones who do, it's a unique experience.

Women ask me all the time, "How do you do it? How do you run a company and have two kids along the way?"

I don't have an easy answer for that. In the past six years, I've been pregnant twice and breastfeeding for ten months. But to be honest, I didn't really think about it all that much at the time. I was fortunate that I felt good, and I was able to be in the office right up until both of my due dates. I was still hiring, I was still working, and my pregnancy wasn't always front-of-mind.

But not everyone sees it that way.

I was at a Founders conference in Ireland once, participating in a round table discussion about why there are aren't more female founders. I was pregnant at the time. A female VC told the group that any time she's working with a female CEOwho's pregnant, she always makes sure to ask her what her maternity plans are, what she's going to do for childcare, and how long she'll be off work.

I was really offended by that, and I told her as much. I asked her if she ever asked male CEOs who were about to have children the same questions. And, of course, she said "no."

People rarely ask a male CEO what his paternity plans are, or how he's going to balance being a CEO and a father. No one asks him how much time he'll be taking off or what the childcare situation will be.

I do think it's interesting that some people treat it as a handicap. It's honestly silly to hear that, but it's such a pervasive and accepted norm that it takes a lot to reframe the conversation.

2. Being in situations where you're the only woman in the room.

In the early days of ThirdLove when we were pitching to VCs, I was almost always the only woman in the room. And I was very aware that the gender gap among founders and the funding they receive was still massive.

As you can imagine, that made pitching the idea of a bra company more difficult. When you're talking about intimate apparel with a group of men, you're not going to get the knowing head nods of, "Oh yeah, absolutely."

And when you're pitching, you really want investors to be nodding along, confirming what you're saying. When no one in the room can immediately relate to your product, it becomes a more difficult sell.

I had to get used to that, and it led me to rethink how I talked about the idea and company. I started making it less personal and began focusing on the business opportunity. My audience couldn't connect with the personal angle, but they could still see that it was a solid business opportunity.

3. Finding the silver lining in a lack of diversity.

As frustrating as some of the attitudes towards female CEOs can be, women in leadership positions also have some unique opportunities right now.

There's certainly more of a focus on gender balance and diversity across the board than there used to be. And that means female CEOs have the opportunity to sit on panels or speak at events where they might normally just have been among the audience. A major reason for this is because female CEOs offer unique perspectives on leadership, hiring diverse talent, and creating the path for other women in the audience to becoming a CEO as well.

In the early days I used to wonder whether I was getting invites to exclusive conferences and events based on my gender, but I finally realized that worrying wasn't worth my time.

If the opportunity is there, you should take it. The role of a female CEO is demanding enough as it is.

This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:

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