JOHANNESBURG - It can be subtle, like failing to make eye contact with a female business owner, but engaging in animated conversation with her male co-owner. Or more blatant, like asking an owner who's seeking investor money if she plans to have children.

Many female business owners say they've encountered gender discrimination from potential investors, customers and employees who don't grasp the reality that a woman can be a chief executive, trial attorney or own a technology company. Many women are taken aback at first and don't know how to respond to comments or behaviour they find insulting, intrusive and demeaning. But over time, they find strategies to deal with bias.

Susan Duffy, executive director of the Centre for Women's entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, says while women owners are more visible and accepted than decades ago, “someone still assumes that if you're the chief executive you’re the white guy in the suit or the white guy in the hoodie.”

Duffy, who oversees Babson's mentoring programmes for women entrepreneurs, says gender discrimination and how to deal with it are frequently discussed at their meetings. “Have your antenna up, so you know it when you see it and have two or three ready-to-go behaviours in your back pocket to manage it for the best outcome.”

Sally Strebel has noticed that when her male business partner leaves her side at meetings, “other men will approach and ask me a question about my company and then tell me how they are building something better and that I should watch out.” Strebel, co-founder of Pagely, a website hosting company based in Tucson, Arizona, realises they want to intimidate her.