When Jen O'Neal was raising money for her travel start-up two years ago, she was invited to pitch to all the partners and associates at a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
The conference table was huge and the slides for her presentation were projected onto a massive screen. As she began to address the room, she glanced around. Four women, none of them investing partners, were all squeezed into small chairs against the side wall.
"I don't think I fully appreciated the expression 'to have a seat at the table' until that day," says O'Neal, CEO of Tripping.com, which crawls the Web for vacation property and home-sharing listings and has raised $55 million in venture capital.
Yet that's the reality in Silicon Valley, where men control the power and the purse: Very few women get a seat on either side of the table.
Industry studies for years have documented the sizable gender gap in funding start-ups. The common explanation for women raising a sliver of the financing essential to the growth of Facebook, Google and Uber is that venture capitalists tend to back entrepreneurs who have succeeded before or who fit a certain mold. Think Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page: Young and geeky, white or Asian male, often in jeans and T-shirt, who dreamed up an idea while banging out the code in a dorm room or garage.
In recent weeks, another explanation has emerged: A pattern of suggestive remarks and sexual propositions, casual misogyny, groping and assaults that is too often a part of the capital-raising process for women.
Women have come forward to describe the sexual advances that come with negotiating financing, jobs and partnerships — and retaliation, such as an abrupt end to the business conversation if they rebuff a sexual come-on. They recall interviews with investors that quickly show they're not taken seriously, or situations that make clear they're outsiders who need to prove themselves far more than men do.
Hanna Aase, founder and CEO of video-profile platform Wonderloop, recalls sessions pitching investors for capital that often resulted in more pick-up lines than term sheets.
"The second question I get after 'What do you do?' is 'What do you do for fun?'" she says. "The third investor question: 'Do you like being called Hannah Montana?'"
Some women have thrown up their hands, frustrated by years of pitches that go nowhere or quickly segue into invitations for a late-night drink. A small but growing number of women are forming women-only investment networks, or raising starter capital in other ways.
With venture capital's big money bro-culture behavior coming to light, there's a new fear, mingled with the relief: That, in reaction, male financiers will avoid women founders altogether. There's talk of some men following the "Mike Pence rule," referring to the vice president's comment years ago that he does not eat alone with any women other than his wife.
Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of food start-up Kuli Kuli, says she has already heard of investors canceling meetings with female founders and she's worried. "I think that's the wrong reaction," Curtis says.
Gaining access to the capital, counsel and contacts they need to turn a big idea into the next big thing is already tough enough, women say.
When Tripping.com's O'Neal walks into the room, she says she's usually the only woman in it. In hundreds of pitch meetings, she has only ever encountered a handful of female venture capitalists.
Chrissa McFarlane, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based start-up Patientory.com, which uses blockchain to secure digital health records, says when she was trying to raise seed money in Silicon Valley, she was the only African-American woman — and the only African American period — anywhere in sight. She says she's sure she would have had more luck landing an investment had she been a white or Asian man in a hoodie.