Gender, Sex, and Why It Matters to the World of Entrepreneurship: Part I
I know what you’re thinking: you already have a pretty solid grasp of what sex and gender mean. But bear with me, because it’s the finer points here that make a difference with regard to entrepreneurship. I was recently asked for my thoughts on how to create a movement of women entrepreneurs in the next generation, and gender, not sex, is a key part of my argument.
Cherie Blair, British barrister and author of Speaking for Myself, discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with being a woman in a male-dominated field at the We Own It Summit in June, 2011. The Summit is a gathering of leaders to explore and enhance women’s participation in high growth entrepreneurship.
Sex refers to one’s biology and anatomy and is the result of chromosomes and hormones. Gender might be thought of as the cultural interpretation of sex; it is socially constructed through the performance of every day activities. When men and women act in gendered ways, they actively replicate and reinforce perceptions of feminine and masculine qualities and behavior. It is through the act of performing gender that norms are defined for what it means to be a man or woman.
Are you still with me?
Undeniably, there are genetic differences between men and women, but these differences are heightened through socialization. Research supports the contention that men and women are socialized from birth to espouse gender roles (e.g., girls should dress in pink and play with dolls, while boys should dress in blue and play with trucks), but as they enact what they have learned, are not only the objects of socialization but also perpetuate what it means to be a male or female for those around them. So, for example, when my mother rather than my father assumes the roles of doing laundry, making dinner, and washing up the dishes, she communicates to me that this is what a good woman does. (And make no mistake, my mother is a very, very good woman.) She's learned about this role from her mother, from her friends, and from mass media, among other influences. (How many commercials show a man pushing around a Swiffer?)
Important to the discussion of entrepreneurship: as they develop, women and men quickly learn that women should assume the role of caring and nurturing, while men should be strong and assertive.
How does this affect women’s engagement in entrepreneurship? Well, let’s take a look at how it affects women’s and men’s career choices in general.
As it turns out, gender roles are salient and persist over time, despite changes in the political, technological, and economic landscape. For example, despite the fact that women have made dramatic progress in entering the workforce in the past half-century, they remain the primary child and elderly caregiver in the home and outperform husbands in terms of performing household labor. Research demonstrates that this often times remains the case even in instances where both heterosexual partners are employed outside of the home and the woman is the primary breadwinner.
Scholarship supports the assertion that pervading views of gender roles affect the career choices of men and women. Oswald (2008), for example, found through experimentation that women who are educated about gender stereotypes are more likely to report higher levels of interest in and ability to succeed in feminine versus masculine fields.
Similar to other male-dominated professions such as engineering, entrepreneurship is strongly associated with masculinity, and as such, is perceived as a profession most appropriate for men. Research has found that women do not identify with the word, “entrepreneur,” even among those who have established and grown their own businesses. Mirhcandani (1999) and Lewis (2006) bring attention to the fact that the very act of using the words, “women entrepreneur,” or, “female entrepreneur,” demonstrates widespread acceptance that the typical entrepreneur is a man, and thus, women’s participation in entrepreneurship is different than the normative male standard. (Kind of like saying, "lady cop" or "female police officer." We think of a man when we hear the word, "cop" until someone clues us in that they are talking about a woman.)
Research has shown through a multitude of studies that both men and women stereotype entrepreneurship as a masculine activity, and this has an effect on women’s intentions to pursue entrepreneurship and their self-efficacy and performance as entrepreneurs. In fact, Gupta and colleagues’ (2009) study demonstrated that stereotypes about gender are greater predictors of intentions to pursue entrepreneurship than biological sex.
I'll close this Part I with a question: knowing that we're socializing women not to identify with entrepreneurship--with risk-taking, being assertive, and being adverturesome, what do you think we need to do to create a movement of women entrepreneurs? I'll share my own thoughts in Part II.
Submitted by Audrey Iffert, an Entrepreneurship Catalyst in Arizona State University (ASU)’s Office of University Initiatives, a branch of the ASU President’s Office. She is also a doctorate student in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; her research focuses on understanding how to engage college women in entrepreneurial activities.