How We Talk About Entrepreneurship Inhibits Women’s Entrepreneurship

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Today we hear from Hui Zhang of the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunication; Xiaohu Zhou at Nanjing University of Science and Technology; Mette Søgaard Nielsen of the University of Southern Denmark; and Kim Klyver at the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Adelaide, examining how the broad perception of what an entrepreneur must be often cuts out who becomes one. These insights are drawn from their paper, “The Role of Stereotype Threat, Anxiety, and Emotional Intelligence in Women’s Opportunity Evaluation,” appearing in the journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.

Masculine stereotypes of entrepreneurship create anxiety among women

Why do women start fewer new businesses than men? We find that the answer to this irregularity may be simpler and more straightforward than expected: We, as a society, suppress women’s entrepreneurship just by the way we talk about entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is portrayed predominantly from a masculine perspective involving scaling, performance, and profit. Such a masculine entrepreneurship portrayal is a prevalent and ongoing discourse in both mass media, among policy makers, and the general public.

Hui Zhang, left, Mette Søgaard Nielsen and Kim Klyver. Not shown is Xiaohu Zhou.

Our study shows that many women do not recognize themselves in these stereotypes about what an entrepreneur should be. This misalignment creates a stereotype threat within women themselves that results in increased anxiety. When feeling anxious, women evaluate opportunities less optimistic, and they are therefore less likely to enter entrepreneurship. This became clear from our three complementary studies.

Anxiety results in pessimistic opportunity evaluation

We studied the impact of stereotype threat on women’s entrepreneurship in a unique context (i.e., China) where gender differences are still strongly prevalent. This enabled us to observe universal patterns that are less observable, but still prevalent, in other contexts.

Based on two experiments and one survey, we show what actually happens when women face stereotype threats. The masculine representation of entrepreneurship makes women anxious and self-aware, worried about not living up to the masculine image of an entrepreneur. Attempts to suppress all these negative emotions waste valuable resources from their working memory. With less working memory for otherwise important tasks, such as controlling attention and processing information, opportunity evaluation becomes more difficult. Hence, opportunities are evaluated more pessimistically because these women simply do not have enough free working memory to see the potential.

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Emotional intelligence as empowerment

Honestly, these results are discouraging keeping in mind that the stories in mass media and among policy makers can be difficult to change, at least short term. Fortunately, our study also points to a more short-term applicable solution. We find that emotional intelligence serves as a very strong coping mechanism. Emotional intelligence refers to being able to recognize, express, understand and manage your emotions. Women with higher levels of emotional intelligence are much better able to “work around” and cope with stereotype threat when evaluating opportunities; that is, the masculine stereotype of entrepreneurs that prevents many women from entering or even considering entrepreneurship just matters less for those with high emotional intelligence.

So what?

We have two key messages: First, short term, we need to enhance efforts to build emotional intelligence among women. This is crucial to ensure empowerment of women enabling them to cope with negative stereotypes. Second, more long term, it matters how we talk about entrepreneurship at all levels (i.e., mass media, policy makers, and the general public). If we want to attract a more diverse pool of potential entrepreneurs, we need a more nuanced and diverse perception of entrepreneurship. Currently, with a dominating masculine stereotype, we very likely prevent talented women from even considering entrepreneurship. They simply cannot recognize themselves in how entrepreneurship is portrayed in society. 

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Mette Søgaard Nielsen

Mette Søgaard Nielsen is an associate professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Relationship Management Entrepreneurship and Organization at the University of Southern Denmark.

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