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The Gender Stereotypes of Entrepreneurship

Kauffman researchers examine recent work by Sarah Thébaud on gender stereotypes in entrepreneurship.

Sarah Thébaud, a former Kauffman Dissertation Fellow, recently wrote an insightful article for Newsweek about the lack of women in entrepreneurship.  She writes:

“[O]ur ideal cultural image of an entrepreneur is similar to that of a lone warrior, which is based on a set of stereotypically masculine traits like aggressiveness, independence, competitiveness and a willingness to take risks.”

According to conventional assumptions, most women do not embody these stereotypically masculine traits.  This  creates barriers for women along two dimensions.  First, they are hindered when they seek financial and social support for their entrepreneurial ventures.  Second, women (or even men who don’t identify with these stereotypical traits) may be discouraged from seeking entrepreneurship as a viable career path in the first place.

Given that society’s perception of entrepreneurship as a masculine activity hurts both business entry and success, the next logical question is: can that perception plausibly be changed?  To answer that, we have to speculate as to why entrepreneurship is associated with masculinity in the first place.

Photo courtesy of James Vaughan via Flickr.

The first reason we suggest is a historical one, and therefore we have few ways to plausibly change it.  Very simply, women’s historical status as second-class citizens and household workers left very little opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation.  As a result, men like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Benjamin Franklin are the ones predominantly lionized in elementary school textbooks.  We might improve the situation with additional emphasis on history’s exceptional women entrepreneurs, like Madam C.J. Walker, but unfortunately we cannot rewrite history.

We have far more potential control over our second posited variable: modern pop culture.  In theaters, abrasive and aggressive portrayals of male entrepreneurs, like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, dominate the screen.  On television, shows like Shark Tank teach us to value displays of bravado and even confrontation as essential elements of the successful entrepreneur.  Compared to the minor maneuvering available when depicting history, contemporary pop culture offers plenty of breathing room to move away from traditional renderings of entrepreneurship as a masculine activity.  But we are failing to do so.

There is a plausible argument as to why – maybe successful entrepreneurship truly does require more stereotypically masculine traits, and therefore pop culture is merely a reflection of reality (rather than a limiting, interpretative choice).  Looking at the entrepreneurship research literature, however, this counterargument holds little water.

First, to examine the “lone warrior” and “independence” aspect – does this accurately describe what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?  Research suggests the opposite holds true. Despite the mythologizing of lone inventors, entrepreneurship research has consistently shown the advantages of founding ventures with a team.[i]  Familiar, successful companies yield the same story – in The Founder’s Dilemma, Noam Wasserman illustrates the broad concept of the advantages of founding teams with the example of Pandora. The company was founded by a former musician, who recruited co-founders with business and technology acumen to help start his company with a competitive edge.

Next, do the stereotypically masculine traits – “aggressiveness,” “willingness to take risks,” and “competitiveness”– show up more often in successful entrepreneurs?  Again, research shows otherwise.  A robust literature on entrepreneurial personalities has established, very simply,  that “there is no single ‘entrepreneurial personality.’”  The vast majority of personality traits (including traditionally assumed masculine ones) have either a negative or neutral relationship to venture survival – only conscientiousness is positively related, and it is difficult to make the case that that is a “male” trait.

It is abundantly evident that we associate entrepreneurship with stereotypically masculine traits, and as Thébaud’s research has made clear, this is damaging to women entrepreneurs (and, by extension, the economy as a whole).   While historical inertia is partly to blame, we continue to stick with this portrayal in modern pop culture against all empirical evidence that it would make sense to do so.  We have a choice of how to depict entrepreneurship in popular culture, and changing course would yield clear, tangible benefits for women, business entry and success, and economic growth. 

[i] Beckman, C., Burton, M., & O’Reilly, C. (n.d.). Early teams: The impact of team demography on VC financing and going public. Journal of Business Venturing, 147-173.