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Are female entrepreneurs underperforming?

Measuring success through economic growth

By Professor Jackie Ford and Dr Gretchen Larsen - January 2020

In our combined experiences of researching, analysing, and also encountering gendered inequalities in the workplace across many different situations, it’s rewarding to witness a recent and renewed focus on feminist activism and collective organisation.

This follows a number of endeavours and global movements (including the better known Everyday Sexism Project, #MeToo, and 1 Million Women projects) and has also recently been represented in scholarly work with greater recognition of the need to engage with feminist theorising when studying organisations, social relations and the workplace.

Our study on gendered differences in entrepreneurial research emerged from our supervision some years ago when Dr Hannah Dean undertook her PhD; her research involved collecting views from different fields of entrepreneurial study, as well as gathering and evaluating information from a number of perspectives, which led to new ideas, applications and questions. This allowed us to challenge contemporary social and policy perspectives, notably those that link entrepreneurial success to economic growth that dominates female entrepreneurship studies and policy by investigating the mechanisms by which it both operates and is maintained.

What is startling is the extent to which academic articles, policy and media coverage strengthen society’s view and expectation that, compared with their male counterparts, women entrepreneurs underperform on economic growth variables, including sales, turnover, staff employed and profitability.

Our systematic review of the literature contested the assumption that economic growth is the only true representation of entrepreneurial success. A critical interrogation of economic studies revealed how deeply rooted the view had become via the dominance of neo-classical economic theory. Neo-classical economic theory views economic growth as a key route to economic and social prosperity.

Far from being a true reflection of the entrepreneurial experience, the focus on economic growth has led to a silencing of the innovator entrepreneur in economic theory and replaced them with an economic rational (male) manager. Within such a gendered discourse on entrepreneurship, the voice of the female entrepreneur has largely been silenced and her experience has been overshadowed by a dominant masculine authority that has prevented consideration of alternative ways of perceiving entrepreneurial success.

A key insight emerged in connection with the legitimacy of the ‘female underperformance hypothesis’. The typical image of the female entrepreneur is crafted mainly through comparative studies of a number of characteristics of both female and male entrepreneurs. These assume that there are ‘feminine’ characteristics which are different from the dominant masculine standards and that these serve to explain the claimed underperformance of female entrepreneurs.

Therefore, despite the widespread understanding of social identities (such as gender, class, ethnicity and age) as complex, multi-layered and diverse, in entrepreneurship literature, the dominant portrayal of economic growth as a success factor reinforces an overly simplified, universal set of assumptions about the nature of the ‘female’ entrepreneur and her widespread situation.

What we actually found was that rather than identifying major distinctions between male and female entrepreneurs, there were many more similarities than differences in their traits (including the desire to achieve, have autonomy and independence and be able to take risks) and motivations (including a complex range of social and financial success factors that were considerably wider than reported accounts of flexibility in work patterns). There remains a tendency to overlook the similarities between men and women and to over-prioritise the idea that women and men are different.

There is a pressing need to further question the view of economic growth in connection with entrepreneurialism and the associated perception of women’s underperformance through further research on the diversity and dynamic nature of experience in all entrepreneurs’ working lives.

Through conducting more local, contextual and qualitative studies of entrepreneurs in their work environment, we can better illuminate the complex and dynamic nature of entrepreneurial experiences that go far beyond the uniform and masculinising tendencies of much of the research. This will encourage richer insight into the diversity of entrepreneurial practice and enable us to capture the social and economic changes in entrepreneurial experiences.

This article is based on a recently published article: Dean, H., Larsen, G., Ford, J. and Akram, M. (2019) ‘Female entrepreneurship and the meta-narrative of economic growth: A critical review of underlying assumptions’, International Journal of Management Reviews, 21, 24-49.

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