Social Norms & Female Entrepreneurship Development: Moving towards making the invisible, visible


Social norms impact the general societal support for women as entrepreneurs, which can further affect an individual woman’s decision to take the risk to become an entrepreneur. Social norms also impact  women in different ways often affected by their social status and class in society. Ironically, women who are pushed into entrepreneurial activity out of necessity may feel less pressure to adhere to existing socially determined restrictions than women who enjoy higher economic status who are more likely to start businesses that will succeed and grow yet choose not to, due to the social norms prevalent at their ‘increased’ income level. Sadly, not only is this an individual’s loss, it is a loss  of  ‘high potential’  entrepreneurs and their contribution to national economic growth and competitiveness.  Data is lacking and needed in order to uncover these specific processes. Some existing data however, indicate areas fertile for further research.

Even the hypothetical is not equal! The attitudes towards the capabilities of the hypothetical male business executive versus the hypothetical female business executive is a revealing metric of social attitudes towards women’s capabilities in positions that require decision-making. The recently launched Gender-GEDI Index compared the World Values Survey results for 17 countries (including the USA, Australia, Germany, France, Mexico, UK, South Africa, China, Malaysia, Russia, Turkey, Japan, Morocco, Brazil, Egypt, India, Uganda) showed two striking trends (1) all 17 countries register a gender difference (i.e. in no country are females considered as ‘good’ as male executives, and (2) greater percentages of male respondents tend to believe that men make better business executives than women. In some countries, the differences were enormous: in Egypt (less than 20%) and India (less than 50%) of both males and females disagreed with the statement that ‘men make better business executives than women’.  When such a strong opinion is expressed in a hypothetical case (where the actual capabilities of the male and female executive are unknown), it is reasonable to expect that attitudes towards women in other positions demanding decision-making and leadership capabilities such as high potential female entrepreneurs would encounter a similar bias.

Work options, social norms and their unexpected ‘negative’ effects. But even in countries where attitudes towards women in leadership positions is more favorable, the enduring attitudes towards women as primarily ‘caretakers’ can hinder women’s advancement as leaders and decision-makers even in spite of seemingly female-friendly employment options. A recent study[i] indicates the tradeoff between some policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family and for women’s advancement at work. Specifically, countries with greater availability of work flexibility and part-time options often have greater female labor force participation but also tend to have fewer women in higher-level (especially management) positions. Part of the reason for this is that women tend to choose the more flexible employment options and the other is that employers cannot tell which women are likely to use these options. As a result, employers may be wary of hiring women for high-level positions. Interestingly, in the US, where flexibility and part-time options are virtually non-existent, women’s overall labor force participation is lower but the percentage of women in management positions is one of the highest in the world. At first glance, it may seem like family-friendly policies are hurting women’s career advances, yet the real culprits are the social norms and gendered expectations that result in the vast majority of women choosing flexible work options over men.

Social norms may be difficult to quantify yet understanding their effects on female entrepreneurship development are essential.


[i] Blau & Kahn (2013)


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