Good news! In 2020, there were more IPOs from women-led companies than ever before.

Bad news? There were only four, of 442 public offerings. In fact, only 22 women have ever brought a company public, of the many thousands of companies to list on exchanges.

While it’s exciting to celebrate women breaking new ground, I still can’t stop myself from wondering: Why only four? Why do so few IPOs come from companies run by women? 

“Homosocial reproduction,” says Elizabeth J. Sandler, founder and chief executive officer of executive coaching, solutions, and design company Echo Juliette, based in New York. She adds that Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor of leadership and strategy at Harvard Business School, created the term in 1977, and it is what still dominates business today.  

“It is the principle that we are most comfortable working with people who are socially similar to ourselves,” Sandler says. “Because corporations are run mostly by men, investors are mostly men and therefore founders of companies taken public are mostly men.”

Sandler says when the pandemic first hit and caused travel and meeting cancelations, her calendar had more than 100 meetings with investors, tech founders, and senior executives. All of them were men. 

Big challenges for women-led companies 

Other statistics bear witness to this trend: Only .64 percent of venture capital money has gone to companies with Black or Latinx women founders since 2018, according to one recent study of minority women in business. Women-led startups also consistently get under 3 percent of all venture capital funding. And more generally, some women may experience a  motherhood penalty, workplace sexual harassment, which goes unreported 75 percent of the time, even the feeling some women reported to this writer about being “pushed out” by their male peers.

Still, mentoring programs, concerted efforts by companies to address gender discrimination, and, of course, incredibly talented women are helping change the game.  

Groundbreakers of 2020

In 2020, Leen Kawas, founder of the pharmaceutical company Athira Pharma, was the first woman to take her company to an IPO in the state of Washington in more than 20 years. Roni Mamluk guided Ayala Pharmaceuticals through an IPO last spring, and the company was valued at $10 billion. In Michigan, Ann Marie Sastry took her A.I. software company Amesite through an IPO in September. And rounding out the 2020 foursome was Maria L. MacCecchini, whose drug company works to cure Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and had its IPO last January. 

And 2021 is already off to a promising start: Founder and CEO of the dating app Bumble became the youngest-ever woman to lead her company to an IPO in February. She is 31, and her company was valued at $8 billion.

“We are catching up to progress, but it just takes time,” says Lindsey Allard,  CEO and Co-Founder of PlaybookUX, a user experience testing company in New York. “The more women who take that leap and become a leader or founder are pushing things forward a little bit more.”

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