A look at the process of understanding and studying women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general. By Stéphanie Chasserio and Corinne Poroli – Skema Business School
Women entrepreneurs and CEOs today seem to benefit from new recognition, which although justified, is historically unprecedented. The Women Equity awards are a good example of this positive attention. All the same, this new interest should not hide the incredible delay of France’s recognition of female entrepreneurs – including a delay in academics, where studies on the subject are barely exist or are confidential. This is even more noticeable when comparing France to its European or North American neighbors, who hold research on female entrepreneurs in higher regard. There has also been a delay in civil society, evidenced by the reticence on the part of financiers, clients, and even colleagues in the same sector to take women seriously in business or in positions of authority, for instance in chambers of commerce or professional organizations.
It is also necessary to reflect on how people today think about women entrepreneurs, and how they are described and understood. We are not attempting here to describe women entrepreneurs in France. We wish more to pinpoint the ways of understanding women entrepreneurs and of scientifically analyzing entrepreneurship in general, in highlighting to what extent our understanding of entrepreneurship is colored by preconceptions and stereotypes of gender. The masculine structures entrepreneurship deeply; this has been shown by many studies, the majority from outside of France (Ahl, 2006; Bruni, Gherardi & Poggio, 2044 and 2005; Essers & Benshop, 2007; Mirchandani, 1999; Ogbor, 2000; Stevenson, 1990). Also, it seems essential today for researchers and key actors in the business world alike to rethink the way both women and men perceive women entrepreneurs and men entrepreneurs.
We propose to first demonstrate the limits of a traditional approach to research which is based on comparing the sexes.
Next, we shall develop a frame of analysis based on the main concept of gender, thus leading to a revisiting of the concept of entrepreneurship and the way it works, and finally underlining to what extent our practices and systems of thought are structured by a gendered concept of entrepreneurship. We will finish with some ideas for reflection and action that could lead to change.
1. A critical look at comparing the sexes: the limits to a classical approach of comparing women and men
In studies on entrepreneurship which mention women, women are usually compared to men, for example by observing if the backgrounds and practices of female CEOs are similar to male CEOs.
Thus, certain differences are often brought to light on such aspects as the psychological state of the business creator, on motivating factors of the creation, on risk aversion, on experience and education, and on the use of networks (Ahl, 2006). However, numerous people (Ahl, 2006; Bruin, Brush and Welter, 2007) emphasize that in many cases the results of this comparative research are open to debate, that the tools of measurement need to be reconsidered and that, once certain variables come into play, some gender differences become insignificant. Thus, a comparative approach generally does not give very insightful or convincing results.
Moreover, these comparative studies mostly aim to show how women fit into the masculine model. This poses a number of problems in the interpretation of results and in the conceptions of female entrepreneurship which develop as a consequence. Take the notion of performance: established norms require that the success of a business is measured in its growth rate, its revenues, or its number of employees. This economic standard comes naturally, and of course the Women Equity awards are proof that women entrepreneurs satisfy the economic performance criteria. However, when asked about performance, and more specifically success, women directors interpret these ideas differently, by emphasizing the durability of the company, the feelings of satisfaction that come in managing the business and creating jobs, and the personal fulfillment of entrepreneurship. This shows the risk of misunderstanding when researchers wrongly assume that a generic concept can be interpreted by everyone in the same way, without nuance. This is not to say that female entrepreneurs give less importance to economic performance, but that they consider factors other than economic performance when defining success. Thus, these differences in defining performance must be taken into account. This example shows the limited interest in comparing sexes if the varying perspectives of both genders are not considered.
2. Toward a fresh approach: understanding entrepreneurship through gender
Returning briefly to the definition and meaning of “gender” can help to develop new perspectives on entrepreneurship. First, the notion of “gender” developed from critical North American research in the gender studies movement. The translation of the concept of gender in France is not consistent. Certain people use the literal translation, “genre”, while others prefer terminology like “differences des sexes” or even “rapports sociaux de sexes” (“difference between sexes” or “social relations between the sexes”). This translation difficulty is not only linguistic (Grange, 2010) but it also reflects the complexity of the concept of gender.
It helps to keep in mind that the concept of gender can help us to better understand how women and men alike, construct, and are constructed by, socially accepted definitions of the « feminine » and the « masculine », which some call our social sex. Gender is also expressed through our experiences and our everyday practices. In social interactions between men and women, gender manifests itself in dependant, discriminatory, and exclusionary situations.
When studying entrepreneurship, a comprehensive analysis that considers gender will permit a different way of thinking about a lot of subjects, such as the choice of sectors, ideas about what a real entrepreneur is, relationships with different parties (clients, bankers, suppliers). The gender perspective allows the understanding of the practices of women entrepreneurs, and in questioning established norms, also has the added bonus of providing a fresh look at the practices of men entrepreneurs.
In classic academic texts such as Schumpeter (1934/1983 cited by Ahl, 2006), the undisputed entrepreneurship reference, the entrepreneur is also presented as a highly rational white male, gifted with what are considered masculine qualities of an almost superhero like nature, such as bravery, a taste for fight and conquest, a tolerance for the unexpected, and the need to prove one’s superiority to others.
The entrepreneur is also portrayed as free from all familial or social constraints, like a disembodied being living outside the social circle. It is clear that this portrayal cannot explain the reality of female entrepreneurs, who must balance their social and entrepreneurial responsibilities. Here it is essential to point out that if this idealized entrepreneurial model doesn’t work for women, it will not work for men either. In this sense, revisiting the entrepreneurial phenomena from a general gender standpoint instead of from a female standpoint can be incredibly useful in rethinking the changing relations between the sexes in contemporary society.
Adopting a reading of entrepreneurship from a gendered perspective seems to us undeniably relevant in developing new frames of understanding which are not constructed only on a masculine foundation. A new reading of entrepreneurship would also promote policies and practices which consider both sexes. To this end, researching what is considered an issue specific to minorities will better reveal what is considered the “natural” model of the majority.
The study of women entrepreneurs can also bring to light previously unexplored or unaddressed topics in entrepreneurship, as most current studies deal with male populations. This paves the way for questioning the norms established and accepted by all actors. These norms seem all the more unfounded and debatable, and thus less relevant, because they don’t allow the consideration of all possible circumstances. Thus a gendered approach to entrepreneurship, and not only the female entrepreneurship approach, is to us an unavoidable route to take in the future. It opens the door to a redefinition of evaluating the entrepreneur and his or her place and role in society, all with a vision which integrates all economic, social, and human variables.
Stéphanie Chasserio – member of the Women Equity for Growth scientific committee, professor and researcher at SKEMA Business School
Stéphanie Chasserio has an MBA from Laval University in Quebec, Canada, and a PhD in Organizational management and human resources from the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada.
She is also a member of the Francophone Association of Human Resource Management, the Femmes Chefs d’entreprises (FCE – Women CEOs) association, and the Acadamy of Entrepreneurship and the Scientific Committee of the academic revue “Management International”.
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