Are women at a disadvantage to men in entrepreneurship? According to a recently released report, gender stereotypes are effectively pushing women away from building their own businesses.
Vishal Gupta, an assistant professor of strategy at Binghamton University in New York, studies workplace behaviors and affirms that there are few role models for women to follow if they’re looking to start their own business. “Where are the role models for women?” he asks. “Pick up any book on entrepreneurship: It’s all about men.”
Gupta contends that while there have been successful female entrepreneurs over the past few decades – Oprah springs to mind – there are gender stereotypes that can discourage women from starting their own business. Gupta endeavored to trace whether there are subtle stereotypes that affect thinking amongst young people in regards to entrepreneurship through a study of more than 465 undergraduate business students divided into random groups.
Gupta randomly gave each group of students an article that highlighted characteristics typical of either males or females; for example, one article said the best entrepreneurs are risk-takers and aggressive – stereotypical male qualities – while another said the most successful entrepreneurs are socially adept and good at networking, often associated with females.
According to Gupta, the subtle hints in the articles influenced the students: When men and women were told that entrepreneurship is about male characteristics, men were more interested in becoming one. Surprisingly, the female-slanted articles had little effect on the confidence of the female students, who showed little ambition for entrepreneurism even after reading the female stereotype article.
Nonetheless, it is true that women have made great strides over the past 50 years, breaking the glass ceiling and attaining higher positions in companies. In 2010, women earned 81 cents for every dollar earned by men, which was up from 76 cents in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Men, though, still earn more in almost every U.S. occupation.
Gupta also found that women shared equal entrepreneurial aspirations with men only when gender neutral attributes were presented. “We never explicitly say that entrepreneurship is for men and not women,” Gupta affirmed. “But implicitly, that’s what we were signaling. How? By emphasizing masculine characteristics.”
An example of a female entrepreneur who has been vilified by the media is Martha Stewart, Gupta contends. A movie made about her life, “Martha Inc.” portrays her as “selfish and only looking out for herself at an early age,” he says. “That’s a big problem. You have to emphasize that entrepreneurs are people who contribute positively to the economy and society.”
Helen Greiner, the cofounder of iRobot, is a successful female entrepreneur. She points out that while women own about 41 percent of privately held companies in the U.S., their access to venture capital is far more limited than their male counterparts. In 2009, only 11 percent of VC-backed U.S. firms had a female chief executive or founder.
That is something that needs to change if women are to succeed at an entrepreneurial level, Gupta avers. “Social beliefs, especially about gender roles and professions, are very entrenched in society,” he says. “They can change, but they take a long time to change. If we want to change the gender image of entrepreneurship, it won’t be an easy job.”