Entrepreneurship: what’s gender got to do with it?

The cultural conversation around entrepreneurship tends to focus predominantly on the male experience. Indeed, the main character in the typical entrepreneurial narrative is the entrepreneur (which is derived from the French word to undertake) and not the entrepreneuse.

This may not come as a surprise. Entrepreneurship has traditionally been associated with men and was once considered a form of masculinity. In years gone by, some even claimed that entrepreneurship required high levels of testosterone .

Although this may now seem absurd, this traditional association of entrepreneurship with masculinity and its embedded assumptions can have serious implications for those considering entrepreneurship who do not fit the ideal image of the male entrepreneur – including women.

Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady wondered in exasperation: “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Men, he mused, “are so pleasant, so easy to please”. “Men are so decent, such regular chaps/ Ready to help you through any mishaps.”

Although dating back to 1964 and from the realm of musical theatre, the sentiment could easily be applied to the arena of modern entrepreneurship where a range of policy interventions have emerged to “fix” the problem of the female entrepreneur . This, essentially, has meant finding ways to provide them with the tools and skills to become more like men in order for them to compete in a man’s world and fulfil their entrepreneurial potential.

Mummypreneurs

For those women who decide to engage in entrepreneurial activity, they are positioned within the contemporary entrepreneurial discourse, including in popular media, as a discrete and separate category with their own label – female entrepreneurs or “mummypreneurs”.

This special classification only goes to confirm that there are normal entrepreneurs (men, family teams, partnerships) and, separate from them, are women. I have yet to hear a man introduced or introducing himself as a male entrepreneur or a daddypreneur.

If Ireland is going to truly evolve as an entrepreneurial nation, in addition to the language we use, we also need to change our cultural attitude towards entrepreneurship. This requires resetting our resilience to failure.

As a nation, we have a deeply embedded fear of failure – the shame of letting ourselves and others down and, heaven forbid, “What will the neighbours say?” An European Commission report found that almost three-quarters of Irish young would-be entrepreneurs are too scared of failure to start their own business.

Speaking at a recent DCU Business School event, Roslyn Bell of Commonhall Apartments defined failure as a “first attempt at learning”.

As a society we are not socialised to fail. We need to redefine what it means to fail. It is not the opposite of success, it is just feedback. And when it comes to entrepreneurship, testing, making smart mistakes and obtaining feedback are high-yield activities.

So how do we reframe the entrepreneurial experience? First, we need to accrue courage capital – the learning absorbed from our smart mistakes and experimentation.

Second, we need to learn the entrepreneurial pivot, which requires keeping one foot firmly in place as you shift the other in a new direction. Courage capital is the dance of entrepreneurship where the dance moves are learned over time, especially by interacting with others in your tribe or dance troupe.

Third, you need to surround yourself with a tribe of like-minded individuals who are doing big things. They will inspire you to do big things via their role-modelling behaviour.

We need to stop looking for differences and start focusing on inclusive entrepreneurship. There is a deeply embedded sense that men and women entrepreneurs are essentially different, yet critical research suggests there are more gendered similarities than differences.

At DCU we take this more inclusive standpoint – which we refer to as “entrepreneuring” – which broadens not only what is traditionally viewed as entrepreneurship and but also who can do entrepreneurship, regardless of social and cultural trappings.

So let’s change the cultural conversation around entrepreneurship by being aware of the language we use, the attitudes we adopt, the company we keep and the dance moves we strut.

Open to all? Challenging the inclusivity of Tech Accelerator Programmes

The emergence of the UK tech accelerator scene coincides with the rapid growth of its start-up community. In the UK, there are now almost 60 accelerator-up programmes, with this figure likely to grow exponentially over the next two years. Accordingly, the UK is becoming one of the world’s most dynamic start-up clusters and the most prominent start-up ecosystem in Europe. As the number of accelerator programmes is set to increase in the UK, even in traditionally under-served areas such as Northern Ireland and the North West; we need to challenge the equality and diversity of these initiatives and consider whether they are unknowingly catering for the needs of men over women.

Accelerator programmes are normally fixed-term, cohort-based initiatives that include mentorship and educational components and culminate in investment-ready technology start-ups, with UK success stories such as Lystable  and Big Data for Humans . The primary value to the entrepreneur is derived from mentoring, connections, and the recognition of being chosen to be a part of the accelerator. Considerable debate has ensued regarding the role and influence of accelerator programmes in developing entrepreneurial talent. However, the general consensus is that they are a good thing and – the more the merrier!

However, one need only take a quick look at any accelerator participant list to see that women lack status, visibility and voice within these programmes. For example, the US accelerator Y Combinator has invested in more than 700 start-ups, including Dropbox and Airbnb, however only 13% of these have been led by women.  The situation in Europe is slightly bleaker, with indicative figures claiming that women are only holding a 5-10% share of accelerator programmes. This begs a question as to whether accelerators offer equal access to women entrepreneurs despite accelerators claiming to be “open to all”.

The well-rehearsed counterargument to this imbalance is that this is merely a reflection of women’s share of high technology entrepreneurship (i.e. women are just not involved in this space – as opposed to why not?). However, evidence indicates that within Europe women own around 15% of all SET ventures (ECDGEI, 2008). So, where are all the girls? Sector marginality does not satisfactorily explain an almost total absence from this important support mechanism.

Recent research (Marlow and McAdam, 2015) indicates that this absence is due to women’s perceived lack of fit with the stereotypical accelerator candidate. This is intriguing given that it is assumed that such programes are inclusive, with the focus on the commercial potential of the venture and not the owner’s personal characteristics. However, according to Susan Johnson (Women.com CEO and Y Combinator participant) “I didn’t think I was a candidate for this world-class accelerator. I didn’t think I looked like a ‘YC founder’”. Thus, women may be opting out of accelerator programmes because of a perceived lack of fit with the predominantly male tech and startup culture. Furthermore, for those women who do overcome ‘lack of fit’, they encounter instances of prejudice and discrimination such as fraternity and an old boy’s culture.

In order to address the absence of women on accelerator programmes and related retention problems, there has been a recent surge in accelerator programmes tailored specifically for women. However, there appears to be conflicting opinions as to whether such programmes are the best way to help women get started in high technology venturing. Although they are ensuring that women can avail of the support typically associated with accelerator programmes, there is some concern that they are putting women into silos by treating them as problems that need to be fixed or given special treatment (McAdam, 2012), without tackling the inherent problems of mainstream accelerator programmes. We need to continue the debate on the inclusivity of accelerator programmes, as we still have a long way to go before an equal playing field in the traditionally male-dominated tech start-up industry is reached.

The featured image has been used under a Creative Commons licence.

Article originally posted at Queens Policy Engagement