Opinion

Why some women hate being called entrepreneurs

8 min read

21 May 2015

Female entrepreneurs often aren't wild about being referred to as such. Those starting their own businesses often get saddled with a range of bizarre epithets and extra titles that differentiate them from “standard” entrepreneurs.

We’ve all heard of “lipstick entrepreneurs”, “mumpreneuers” and “fempreneurs” – as if the role needs tweaking to make it women-friendly – a helpful feminised version. By using those terms, it reinforces the entrenched perception that starting your own business is largely the realm of men. This can cause something of a vicious cycle, as we see women put off from pursuing the opportunity.

Interestingly, the Centre for Entrepreneurs carried out research where the majority of women interviewed didn’t identify with the term “entrepreneur” – frequently citing it as a loaded title. Preferred terms were “founder” or “business founder”.

Some may wonder if this is particularly important at all – surely there are bigger fish to fry when it comes to damaging portrayals of women, not to mention gender inequality across the workplace in general?

Well, yes and no. This aversion to being called an entrepreneur and the reasons given, point to the prevalent and damaging presence of unconscious bias – an intrinsic part of gender inequality.

Economically, it’s harmful too. The Centre for Entrepreneurs said that entrepreneurship is the “very sector that generates the highest number of most new jobs, and fosters nearly all of the growth in the UK economy”. The report estimated that if women started businesses at the same rates as men, there’d be a million more entrepreneurs in the UK. Without ridding the sector of unhelpful (and often entirely inaccurate) stereotypes, we could be losing out on a whole lot of talent and potential. Women-led SMEs currently add around £70bn to the economy.

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Early startup activity in the UK has risen to 8.6 per cent of the working-age (18-64 years) population and the number of active companies increased by 3.7 per cent in the second half of 2014. There’s evidently ongoing interest in and pursuit of entrepreneurial activity, but there’s a gender gap of almost 50 per cent in entrepreneurship in the UK.

The Centre for Entrepreneurs’ research was conducted across 483 C-suite executives and entrepreneurs from UK business, from a range of industries, whose businesses had an annual turnover of over £2m.

It found that both men and women shared a strong appetite for growth – 90 per cent of men and 92 per cent of women executives said they were very or extremely interested in growing their business in the next three years. Among entrepreneurs, this stood at 82 per cent of men and 83 per cent of women.

Women though had quite considerably greater entrepreneurial ambitions – less than 18 per cent of male business founders said they were interested in starting another business in the next few years, compared to over 47 per cent of female founders. Female executives were also keen to start their own businesses – 69 per cent showed ambition there compared to 29 per cent of their male peers.

Financial reasons may be a contributor here. There has been earlier talk of a “reverse pay gap” in entrepreneurship, with women out earning their male equivalents – earning up to 17 per cent more.

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Men and women named the same top barriers as obstacles to growth – team capabilities, high level of competition, already dealing with rapid growth and difficulty accessing capital. Women reported a higher number however. 

Last year, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT looked into the role of gender in entrepreneurial pitches – playing numerous identical presentations to groups of investors, but switching the narrator between male and females. Asked to choose who they thought would be successful, the study found male-narrated pitches were 40 per cent more likely to be picked to receive funding than those narrated by women. Looked into further, it found those evaluating the pitches particularly favoured pitches from “attractive” men – “attractive” women were perceived as worse than both “unattractive” men and women. They found “attractive” men more persuasive than others, according to the research.

Unconscious bias rears its head again, and as in the UK, it’s an economic concern in the US too. Entrepreneurial startup ventures contribute around 20 per cent of new job creation annually in the US. If women are already being isolated into their own category with titles like lipstick entrepreneurs and at a disadvantage just on account of their gender, they’re likely to be discouraged from progressing.

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The personality attributes ascribed to entrepreneurs also make up part of the problem. The American research suggested that there’s a “perceived lack of fit” regarding women as business founders, and as a result they are more likely to have their performance devalued and will be less likely to receive opportunities to develop their career further. A fundamental issue to address appears to be making a conscious effort – particularly those in investor and policymaker positions – to readdress the unconscious bias already in effect.

Such unconscious bias is of course, a wide-ranging problem. For example, orchestras have introduced blind auditions conducted behind a screen to ensure hiring is solely done on merit – with the addition of carpeted floor so women’s high-heels don’t give anything away. Up to around 1970, the top five orchestras in the US had less than five per cent women. By 1997, this was up to 25 per cent, reflecting the impact of the introduction of blind auditions since the 70s and 80s. Supposedly the screen being used for a preliminary round alone already made it 50 per cent more likely that a woman would advance to the finals.

The “overwhelming majority” of those surveyed in the Centre for Entrepreneurs study said that acknowledging their gender diminished their accomplishments – as if they were successful “for a woman”. There is an important balance to establish for investors and funders to acknowledge that women are ambitious regarding growth, while also seeing more barriers to it, and adjusting for biased perceptions. At the same time, a long-term aim of many female business founders is to be recognised as simply a successful entrepreneur – without all the qualification the term or added epithets may bring to it. 

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