Shaping Women’s Entrepreneurship for Global Success

Editor’s note: March is Women’s History Month. In this article, UD Management Professor Amanda Bullough sheds light on how gender and culture continue to play a role in women’s entrepreneurship.

Across the globe, women’s entrepreneurship is increasingly important for creating new jobs and contributing to the social and economic growth of societies. According to the 2019/2020 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, 231 million women launched or operated businesses in the 59 economies around the world. As noted in a 2015 McKinsey Global Institute report, if women were to play an identical role in the global labor market to that of men, it is estimated that $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to the global GDP.

While the overall perception of female entrepreneurship may seem positive, the underlying reality of the success or failure of women entrepreneurs continues to be dynamically shaped by gender and culture. According to University of Delaware Professor of Management Amanda Bullough, both the business world and society-at-large need to pay more attention as to why these conditions persist.

“GEM shows a huge amount of activity,” said Bullough, who is also co-founder and research director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics. “But, when you dig into the report, you can see where women lag behind men, and the numbers are striking.”

Bullough took a critical look at the interplay of gender and culture on women’s entrepreneurship as a guest editor of a special issue of Small Business Economics. In her article, “Women’s entrepreneurship and culture: gender role expectations and identities, societal culture, and the entrepreneurial environment,” Bullough and her co-authors synthesized eight research papers featured in the issue into a framework of three interrelated conditions that need to exist in order for women entrepreneurs to be successful.

Bullough took time to answer a few questions about why it is important for researchers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike to shine a light on providing a more equitable environment for women entrepreneurs.

Lerner: Why is understanding the interplay and nuances of women’s entrepreneurship and culture important?

Bullough: The culture-related complexities are similar across the world, but the visibility of them varies. Globally, women face challenges related to gender role expectations, like who is seen as responsible for the family and who people expect to see starting businesses. Women also benefit from similar environmental characteristics, like cultures and policies that are supportive of entrepreneurial activity.

In many parts of the world, gender role expectations are overtly delineated. It is widely accepted and communicated that women should be caring for the family and not engaging in business. So, when women do start businesses, it can be very isolating and the biases and stereotypes are huge limitations to growth. When seeing women in business is rare and there are few role models, female entrepreneurs are seen as extraordinary and are therefore hard to aspire to and emulate.

Ultimately it takes societal change and oftentimes these things can take a generation, as they have here in the U.S. Gender role expectations here are much more flexible and women in business is far more acceptable for my generation than it was for my parents. The inequities in this country related to gender disparities in total entrepreneurial activity, biases in venture capital funding, and so on are still taking another generation to change. Current research still shows an unconscious and unintended bias in favor of men in new business pitches for funding, for example. My hope, and expectation, is that younger generations will see more women owning and growing businesses and will grow up in a world of less inequality, so these biases and obstacles will weaken more and more.

Lerner: How do women entrepreneurs become successful in their businesses and what is unique for women compared to men?

Bullough: Women entrepreneurs face work-family balance and family embeddedness in ways that are different from men. Before I continue here, it is important for me to note that when I say ‘women’ or ‘men’ in this type of way, I don’t mean all women or all men. For example, there are plenty of men out there who face significant work-family challenges and are very involved with the family and the household. It’s just that women tend to face them more or more intensely.

Research continues to show this as a relevant topic, as we can see from several articles in this special issue, and the pandemic has highlighted it again. Women have been hit harder by job loss or reduction, and women working from home have tended to shoulder more of the disruptions to work from kids being out of school. The family embeddedness perspective looks at how women incorporate family into how they do their work, the types of businesses they choose in start, in what job fields they want to work, and the types of responsibilities and work cultures they create for their own businesses.

The support level of the entrepreneurial environment–enough small business loans or training for new business, for example—affects men just as much as women. What is different for women is that in male-dominated fields, like bank lending, venture capital financing, business ownership and leadership, and so on, women are far more likely than men to be hit on by a potential new client, dismissed by a banker or venture capitalist, or worry about what it will look like and what signal it will send if they are seen meeting with a client afterhours.

Lerner: Was there anything that you were surprised by in reviewing the articles?

Bullough: What this new body of research confirmed for me is that women are still facing the same things, the same struggles. I spend my time in this space as a career choice and passion, so this isn’t surprising for me. It is important, however, because it is surprising to many. People need to know that while we, as a society—and I would venture to say most societies—have not made as much progress as may have thought, as I would have liked to have seen. We have not solved these problems. And again, if we can’t see that these challenges still exist, and we can’t learn from what works—from what women are doing to be successful and what programs, policies, and practices are effective at propelling women’s entrepreneurship and leadership—we can’t fix problem and we can progress. This is why this research is so important. We cannot become complacent or blind. The impact of women on their communities and economies is too powerful to not continue this line of work.

Lerner: What do we need to do or expect to happen next because of this body of work?

Bullough: We’re understanding the interplay of women’s entrepreneurship and culture better. More women are starting businesses, but they’re still behind their male counterparts. Their businesses are still smaller and those numbers aren’t changing enough. Deep-seated elements of culture take time to change. More and more women starting businesses and growing successful companies helps make women in the workforce not seem so unusual and extraordinary. When men set a good example of appropriate and respectful behavior and business practices, societal and company cultures slowly evolve in a way that bad behavior is noticed and rooted out before it grows. These cultural shifts take time.

Policy changes however can be quicker than entire cultural shifts, although an accepting culture needs to be open at least enough for new policies and rules to be enacted and stick. Huge things need to change still in the U.S. at this point for real advancement of women in the workforce in general and in business. The solutions to this are extremely complicated and often come down to political will for change and funding. From a practical perspective, paying childcare workers the wages they deserve by the parents directly, for example, would add to the already exorbitant cost of childcare. This would in turn make it even less affordable and cripple moms’ careers when one parent has to leave paid work to stay home with the kids because they can’t afford private daycare.

Lerner: What do you want women entrepreneurs to take away from this body of work?

Bullough: You’re amazing, steadfast, overachievers. You work is important and we know it is not easy. As scholars, we will continue to work on this. As entrepreneurs, please continue to do what you do. You are a beacon, an example and a role model for countless others—young women, boys and girls and grown adults. And, your businesses are important contributors to your economy and to job creation.

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