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Female entrepreneurs and the curse of ‘male-only’ business attributes

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 sex – 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, over confidence, 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 the reality, and reinforces false ideas about what it takes to start and grow a business.

Starting early.

Changing behaviour

The truth is that female entrepreneurs strongly identify with so-called “male only” attributes. They use these traits to maximise 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 programmes, 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 behaviours 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 programmes that are tailored towards females only, but this may well be because they don’t have to worry how to handle stereotypical expected behaviours. 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 behaviours which 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.

Going all in. Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

Guilt trip

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 recognise these women, so that we can address the stereotypes here. And at the same time, we can listen to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg on how women can frame and embrace risk.

Facebook’s Cheryl Sandberg at Davos in January 2017. EPA/LAURENT GILLIERON

We can’t flip societal judgements overnight, but we should recognise 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 labelling of successful entrepreneurial traits matters. There must be more discussion about the converging nature of female and male entrepreneur’s 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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