A need to even the playing field

Breaking through entrepreneurship’s glass ceiling

Recently, CEOs of high growth companies were asked by Inc. magazine to pick their most admired entrepreneur. It turned out that the majority opted for Elon Musk (founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX), Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group), Mark Cuban (known to the larger public via the show ‘Shark Tank’; he is also owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks) and Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft). The results would probably be very similar if we asked random people on the streets the same question. The picture that comes to mind to most of us when thinking about successful entrepreneurs is that of a man, whether we ask people in the Middle East or abroad.

This masculinized image of entrepreneurship is forged through long tradition, stretching from entrepreneurship theory, which during the 20th and 21st century has been greatly influenced by the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist. In his studies, Schumpeter invoked a picture of the entrepreneur as a modern warrior, a doer, a winner, a creator, a man who founds dynasties and private kingdoms; a man with the willpower to conquer and the impulse to fight to prove himself superior to other men. Schumpeter created the image of an entrepreneur who strives to succeed for the pleasure of success, not merely for its fruits.

Even though the conceptual definition of entrepreneurship has evolved, the masculine stereotype of entrepreneurship is still prevalent and leads to the understanding of entrepreneurial activities as a male behavior. It is no surprise then that many women cannot identify with this image, or don’t find the perspective of being a business founder very appealing. Moreover, in the context of Middle Eastern culture, which is predominantly male oriented, men are ascribed the role of breadwinners and women the role of caregivers, wives and mothers. Not to mention religious traditions, which endow men with large authority over women in terms of financial responsibility, inheritance, marriage and divorce, and make it very difficult for women to challenge these assigned roles. Obviously, there are also other reasons that have been identified as important obstacles to female freelance activities, such as the political, regulatory and economic contexts; but above all, the cultural convictions and stereotypes, deeply ingrained in our understanding, are much more difficult to change than our laws and institutions.

However, the consequences are heavy. Although female business starters have received increasing attention from policymakers in the MENA region, female entrepreneurship is still quite a challenge. The region already displays one of the lowest rates of general entrepreneurial activities worldwide with an average of 8.6 percent of the adult population engaging in early stage entrepreneurship, compared to Latin America with 17.6 percent or Asia with 12 percent, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2013 global report on entrepreneurship. Female participation in entrepreneurship is also one of the lowest across the world according to this report.

According to the GEM 2012 Women’s Report, in most MENA countries more than two thirds of businesses are founded by men. In some countries, such as Egypt and Palestine, less than one fifth of all business founders are females. Female owned businesses in the region are also 60 percent more likely to remain a single person firm without any employees, added to the fact that women’s expectations regarding the future growth of their businesses are also consistently lower than those of men. Moreover, according to the report, women are less proactive in seeking market opportunities than men, which has helped enlarge the gap between men and women entrepreneurs in the MENA region to be the biggest worldwide. Additionally, women in the region have greater difficulties in translating entrepreneurial intentions into action: for every female entrepreneur, six other women would like to start their own ventures, but despite positive attitudes and intentions towards freelance activities, very few among them realize their ambitions. We are therefore currently in a situation where we cut our potential entrepreneurial population in half because we do not encourage women enough to consider starting their own businesses.

Many well intentioned initiatives, such as networking and mentoring events for women, seem to unfortunately come at a point in time where women have already “made up their minds” and developed a set perception regarding their entrepreneurial potential. As such, they only reach a small portion of the female population. For example, the majority of students at business schools worldwide are women; however, only a minority of them actually consider and attend classes specializing in entrepreneurship. Prof. Sally Jones from the University of Leeds states that entrepreneurial education worldwide is based almost exclusively on the experiences of men and on studies related to traditionally male owned businesses, which then represent the basis that shape students’ expectations. Male experiences and expectations are also reflected in the way curricula are conceived and in the gendered language that is used to describe course content. According to Jones, many women do not actually apply for entrepreneurship courses because they feel the courses don’t match well with their personalities.

Women also tend to have low levels of self confidence regarding their entrepreneurial potential. Research has in fact shown that — independent from their actual educational and experience level — women tend to have low levels of what is so called self efficacy. This means that they have a weak belief in performing well in entrepreneurship, as they value and perceive their skills, experiences and competencies significantly lower than those of men with comparable levels. This starts at an early age, as research on teenage girls and boys shows, where self perceptions significantly impact entrepreneurial options in the future for girls compared to boys and remain a constraint for most women (and not for men) even after launching their ventures, with significant effects on venture growth. Such perceptions have been shaped by gender stereotypes in a society that imposes certain expectations regarding female behavior long before professional and educational measures can influence female confidence.

Unfortunately, well intentioned support and advice for women tends to reinforce certain beliefs regarding their supposed lack of true entrepreneurial qualities, such as the conviction that “by nature” they tend to be risk averse, or “they lack what it takes” to be an “entrepreneurial warrior.” Men, on the other hand, have been perceived as the group who has it all. For instance, it is not helpful to motivate female students at universities by reminding them of their social disadvantages compared to male counterparts. It is certainly important to address these issues openly, but we should not put emphasis on the problem, but rather search for a solution.

How can we better address these issues? First, we need to be more careful about how we promote entrepreneurship, and about the definitions we use to shape perceptions of what is and isn’t entrepreneurial. This means convincingly broadening what we consider successful entrepreneurship: social entrepreneurship, “mompreneurs” or successful home business entrepreneurs and lifestyle entrepreneurs are also valuable when creating activities on societal and economic levels. We have to be aware that entrepreneurship is a “process of becoming rather than a state of being” as no one is born with the entrepreneurial gene. Instead, the process of starting a business can be learned and is an option for everyone.

When it comes to developing a strong sense of self efficacy in women, research informs us about the central role of “mastery of experiences” and of “role models.” Mastery of experiences in order to gain an increase and resilient sense of self confidence requires having direct professional exposure and opportunities to develop necessary managerial skills and business acumen. This demands that we work actively to increase the participation rate of women in the labor market, which averages 23 percent in the MENA region compared to a world average of 50 percent. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) there are about twice as many young women unemployed in the region (43.9 percent) compared to male peers (22.9 percent). These numbers also indicate that women in the region have very little professional exposure that would allow them later to spot business opportunities, and then to develop and grow their ventures. Lack of professional experience prohibits women from being equipped with the basics, such as finance and accounting, compliance with laws and regulations, and marketing. Many female business owners lack strategy and planning — all important issues that need to be communicated to lenders and possibly investors — thus, going into their own ventures would be beyond a leap of faith for most women.

Role models are equally important to increase self efficacy and to set an example of what is possible. Role models motivate us because we perceive similarity to them in terms of attitudes, behavior and achievements. Many successful female entrepreneurs and business leaders in the region exist, examples are: Haifa Al Kaylani (founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum), Rana Chemaitelly (founder of the Little Engineer), the young Hind Hobeika (Instabeat), the successful Lebanese designer Nada Debs and many others. The stories of these women can motivate others to emulate them and go beyond their limits. To date, female entrepreneurs and innovators tend to receive far less attention in the media than their male counterparts, and therefore are less visible. We need to bring more of these stories to the attention of the larger public. We also need to integrate these biographies and their business experiences into our teachings in higher education, as well as into our teachings at school — before girls develop negative expectations regarding their professional potential.

Currently, we are in a situation where we cut our potential entrepreneurial population in half because we do not pay sufficient attention to these soft issues. Working factors such as definitions, language and female confidence are equally as important as the development of a functioning entrepreneurial ecosystem, because they will help us value and support human resources in this system. They are also important aspects to help reduce the gender gap in entrepreneurship in our region and promote momentum for job creation. Supporting female entrepreneurs is not only a question of social fairness and ethics, but also essential for the economic growth and prosperity of MENA societies, and an essential ingredient for a sustainable future.

Bettina Bastian is a professor of management in the Olayan School of Business at AUB.

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