Exploring the Nexus of ‘Benevolent’ Sexism and Entrepreneurship

Close-up of woman reviewing figures in office with male colleague
(Photo: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels)

The idea that sexism in any form might be benevolent is counterintuitive – but is it genuine? That was a question that Nhu “Julie” Nguyen at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management; Ivona Hideg, associate professor in organization studies at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School; Yuval Engel, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Amsterdam’s business school; and Frédéric Godart, associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, explored in “Benevolent Sexism and the Gender Gap in Startup Evaluation” just published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. The answer to that question, based on their work, can be divined in their paper’s abstract below. We then asked Nguyen some questions of our own, which appear after the abstract.

Women-led startups are evaluated less favorably than men-led startups, but the reasons for this require further investigation. Drawing on ambivalent sexism theory, we posit that benevolent sexism undermines gender equity in startup evaluation. We initially expected benevolent sexism to be negatively related to evaluations of women-led startups. Surprisingly, we found that benevolent sexism is unrelated to evaluations of women-led startups but is positively related to those of men-led startups—a finding that was replicated in two additional studies. Our work demonstrates benevolent sexism as an advantaging mechanism of inequity in entrepreneurship that boosts men’s outcomes without directly harming women’s outcomes.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Our goal is to contribute to the fight against sexism in entrepreneurship–an issue that has been on the minds of the public, researchers, and policy-makers for years. We notice that the focus is often on overt sexism, the kind that outright demeans women as incompetent, unreliable, and inferior to men. Without a doubt, this kind of sexism exists, but what has been overlooked is another form of sexism called benevolent sexism, which involves viewing women as wonderful but fragile and in need of protection from men.

Unlike what we often think of as sexism, benevolent sexism paints women in a seemingly positive light of idealization, affection, and protectiveness. But it can be just as damaging to gender equity. Thus, we believe that in the quest to make entrepreneurship more equitable, it is critical to study how this form of sexism shapes evaluations of startups by women and men.

Clockwise from top left: Nhu “Julie” Nguyen, Ivona Hideg, Yuval Engel, and Frédéric Godart

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

Our findings were unexpected but fascinating. We set out thinking that benevolent sexism would negatively impact women’s startups, with evaluators who endorse benevolent sexism rating women’s startups more negatively than evaluators who do not endorse these attitudes. But our results show that benevolent sexism has no discernable impact on women’s startups.

However, the bias emerges when we turn our attention to men’s startups. Here, we found that the more evaluators endorse benevolent sexism, the more positively they evaluate men’s startups. Thus, benevolent sexism does not directly undermine women, but rather it gives men an unfair advantage, even when there is no difference in their qualifications or startup ideas. This makes benevolent sexism an insidious force contributing to inequity as its effects are subtle and difficult to detect.

Communicating the importance of these findings was a challenging task. Luckily, during our review process, Phillips et al. (2022) paper on inequity frames was published. This resource equipped us with the language to describe benevolent sexism as an advantaging mechanism of inequity that lifts up men without directly pushing women down.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our research offers a novel approach to understanding gender disparity in entrepreneurship. Rather than focusing on overt negative sexism as a contributor to such disparity, we study benevolent sexism–a subtle and seemingly harmless form of sexism. In an era where overt sexism is being confronted head-on by initiatives like the United Nations’ ‘HeForShe’ campaign and the #MeToo movement, our focus on benevolent sexism addresses a form of sexism that is arguably more prevalent in the current startup ecosystem.

What also sets our work apart is the discovery that benevolent sexism does not directly impose unfair barriers on women. Instead, it results in men’s startups receiving higher evaluations than merited, while women’s startups are seemingly unaffected. This is worrying given that research shows that people are more comfortable making decisions that favor one group if they don’t directly harm another group.

We hope our findings spark further research into these subtle, often overlooked gender biases and inform policies aimed at building an inclusive and equitable environment for entrepreneurs of all genders.

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Nhu 'Julie' Nguyen

Nhu Nguyen is a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. Her research seeks to understand how gender and social networks shape individuals’ experiences and outcomes in the workplace.

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