It didn’t take long for the hand grenade to drop at a panel discussion on women’s involvement in the local VC and startup community.
Speaking on a panel at the InnovationAus.com Women in VC event on Tuesday, Diane Smith-Gander threw a bomb in the first round of discussion.
“I would say women are largely being excluded from the startup ecosystem in Australia, just like they are in other geographies in the world,“ said Ms Smith-Gander in answer to the question of what is going on for women entrepreneurs in Australia.
“It’s because women are excluded from leadership in just about every other endeavour as well,” said Ms Smith-Gander, who has had a long and varied business career including being a senior executive at Westpac and chair of construction and engineering giant Transfield services and is the immediate past president of the Chief Executive Women group.
Ms Smith-Gander said she did not believe men and women were fundamentally different.
“There’s a biological difference that we all know about. The rest she said, including having to put up with lower pay was ‘experiential.’
“We are the sum total of cultural mores developed over thousands of years,” said Ms Smith-Gander.
“Now we have woken up and said this isn’t a great place to be.
“If you can’t get yourself around the social justice argument, that everyone should have equal opportunity – I am not saying equal outcomes – then I think we can all get our heads around the argument that we need to use all the talent we have available in the world.”
Ms Smith-Gander said the social underpinnings that cause the opportunity gap between men and women needed to change and there was nothing in the world that women could not do, it was just a matter of women having ‘got used’ to not doing some functions.
It didn’t take long for a bloke to try and drop a blanket on Ms Smith-Gander’s statements.
Veteran Australian tech executive, venture capitalist and fellow panelist Daniel Petre disagreed with Ms Smith-Gander.
“I think (the assertion that) women are being excluded from the startup community is completely false.
“I am not a newbie in this debate. I had a management team that was half and half back in 1993,” said Mr Petrie, who had an executive career at Microsoft in the US and Australia in the eighties and nineties before moving into the venture capital game with companies like PBL’s ecorp, netus, which was half owned by News Corp, and more recently AirTree Ventures.
He is also on the board of the government’s peak advisory body, Innovation and Science Australia.
“We know that the workplace was designed by men and that large corporates are the biggest problem, we know that,” said Mr Petrie who believes the startup scene will help advance women in business.
“It’s the one place which is truly about talent and intellect and belief and courage and execution,” he said and went on to boast that 30 per cent of founders in AirTree invested companies were women.
“It’s the largest number of any VC in the country and one of the largest around the world,” Mr Petrie said.
“Didn’t you just make my argument?” shot back Ms Smith-Gander.
“Thirty per cent and you are the largest?,” she queried.
Mr Petre countered that Ms Smith-Gander opinion was ‘dangerous.’
“We have the beginnings of a place where women can flourish without the structure of a workplace designed by men before them,” he said.
“So it is the perfect place,” said Mr Petre describing the present Australian startup scene as version 2.0 of the movement that started with the dotcoms of the late nineties that flamed out in the eponymous crash.
“We’ll have more successful women in business as founders and business leaders than will ever come out of corporate Australia by a country mile,” he said
It may take a long shuffle to get to Mr Petre’s country mile.
Anecdotal evidence from the women investors and entrepreneurs at the event pointed to gender difficulties, some extreme. One woman attendee said she had sought an investment associate and got just two women responding out of more than 400 applications.
A recent survey of venture capital rounds found just 16 per cent in Australia had female founders compared to 19 per cent globally.
But for those women that have a crack, the rewards can go beyond just the financial.
Charlotte Petris, is the founder and CEO of FinTech startup Timelio which has become an invoice financing moving close to $200 million through the platform since beginning operations in 2015.
Ms Petris used the proceeds from the sale of a home to fund the business and took a big step into the insecurity of the unknown to get it off the ground.
But the slog and uncertainty has its emotional rewards.
“The feeling of bringing on that first customer will never leave me,” she told attendees at the event.