Editor’s note: this article on female entrepreneurs and “male-only” attributes was originally published on The Conversation by Lianne Taylor, the Programme Director UEA Africa Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the University of East Anglia.
In theory, the world of entrepreneurship should be gender-blind. Start-up businesses are judged on whether they survive or die, and you might have thought that the same stark definition was applied to entrepreneurs themselves. But the discussion around how business people operate in this bruising arena has struggled to detach itself from broader stereotyping around gender—and it is starting to wear thin.
In popular thinking around entrepreneurship, in the press and in research, certain attributes are presented as “male-only”. These traits associated with building a business include self-esteem, risk-taking, autonomous decision-making, overconfidence, the need for control, resilience and ego. Put all that together and you have a familiar archetype… of a male entrepreneur.
The trouble is that female entrepreneurship is most commonly described in opposition to these traits. And so a woman who starts a business is expected to show an affinity for collaborative decision-making, a focus on service and an aversion to risk. The reliance on this stereotyping does not reflect reality and reinforces false ideas about what it takes to start and grow a business.
The truth is that female entrepreneurs strongly identify with so-called “male-only” attributes. They use these traits to maximize business opportunities in the same way men do. To properly reflect that, it’s down to anyone involved with the entrepreneurial world to proactively change the labels and recalibrate the discussion.
It won’t be easy. Female entrepreneurs are even told by their own mentors, by female-only development programs, and by others not to become like men in order to be successful; not to share the traits associated with male entrepreneurs. This is ludicrous. There are no behaviors that could be regarded as strictly for males that ambitious female entrepreneurs and professionals, either do not have or won’t pick up en route to success in a competitive environment.
There is a caveat to this. Women tend to “do better” on programs that are tailored towards females only, but this may well be because they don’t have to worry about how to handle stereotypical expected behaviors. The uptake of female entrants into entrepreneurship can be considerably increased if we avoid alienating them with language, expectations and archetypes that make them feel like they are “acting like men” by displaying certain attributes.
Entrepreneurial learning theory—which studies what and how entrepreneurs learn while they explore opportunities—suggests that entrepreneurs with no business experience adopt behaviors that will allow them to be seen as credible and successful. We face the reality that gender differences still permeate research and public perception, and so female entrepreneurs feel the pressure to adapt in order to meet public expectations when dealing with investors and other stakeholders because the stakes are high.
What about when it comes down to emotions? Well, the idea of entrepreneurial emotions such as passion, pride and fear can be misleading. These emotions influence both genders and can be enduring or transient.
Gender differences in emotions still persist and have a strong influence on the entrepreneurial creation of new businesses (a male entrepreneur’s love for his businesses has been shown to be the same as a parent’s love for their child). A male’s sense of pride might appear greater than a female’s, but neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that everyone’s decisions are equally influenced by emotions. The context in which entrepreneurs find themselves is critical in this debate.
For example, when family and businesses collide this might create more vivid anxiety or guilt for women, while male entrepreneurs might display more clearly the same emotions in the failure of a business idea because the interplay between work and home is less intense.
Attitudes towards risk are also still separated by sex in most discussions. The acceptance of risk is higher in males than females when starting a business. But women who have taken the same financial and business risks as men are largely overlooked among researchers and professionals because they are a smaller group and do not contribute significantly to statistics. It is time to recognize these women so that we can address the stereotypes here. And at the same time, we can listen to Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on how women can frame and embrace risk.
We can’t flip societal judgments overnight, but we should recognize that entrepreneurial attributes such as ego and high self-esteem, which drive the need to be successful, are not gender-specific. Many are guilty of judging a female entrepreneur who puts her business before her family by different standards to those of a male equivalent. A woman who takes a financial risk by putting up the family home as collateral can be deemed to be going against “female-only” entrepreneurial traits, rather than conforming to attributes shared by all fellow entrepreneurs.
Our understanding and labeling of successful entrepreneurial traits matter. There must be more discussion about the converging nature of female and male entrepreneurs’ attributes and emotions, and a move decisively away from the idea that this somehow represents women “acting like men”. These are adventurous and professional women, making autonomous decisions, taking calculated risks, and needing to be in control. They are entrepreneurs.
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