Why Research on Women Entrepreneurs Needs New Directions

By Ahl, Helene | Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Why Research on Women Entrepreneurs Needs New Directions


Ahl, Helene, Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice


Research articles on women's entrepreneurship reveal, in spite of intentions to the contrary and in spite of inconclusive research results, a tendency to recreate the idea of women as being secondary to men and of women's businesses being of less significance or, at best, as being a complement. Based on a discourse analysis, this article discusses what research practices cause these results. It suggests new research directions that do not reproduce women's subordination but capture more and richer aspects of women's entrepreneurship.

Introduction

Several authors maintain that research on women entrepreneurs suffers from a number of shortcomings. These include a one-sided empirical focus (Gatewood, Carter, Brush, Greene, & Hart, 2003), a lack of theoretical grounding (Brush, 1992), the neglect of structural, historical, and cultural factors (Chell & Baines, 1998; Nutek, 1996), the use of male-gendered measuring instruments (Moore, 1990; Stevenson, 1990), the absence of a power perspective, and the lack of explicit feminist analysis (Mirchandani, 1999; Ogbor, 2000; Reed, 1996). While fully agreeing with the above, this article takes the critique one step further and discusses the consequences of such shortcomings and suggests some ways to amend the situation.

The suggestions are based on a discourse analysis of 81 research articles (73 empirical and 8 conceptual) on women' s entrepreneurship published between 1982 and 2000 in four leading entrepreneurship research journals (1) (Ahl, 2004). The reviewed articles covered the psychology of women entrepreneurs, their personal background and business characteristics, attitudes to entrepreneurship, intentions to start a business, the start-up process, management practices, strategies, networking, family issues, access to capital, and performance. (2)

This article is based on a feminist analysis, which entails the recognition and analysis of women's structural subordination to men (Calas & Smircich, 1996). Consequently, it focuses on the results of certain established research practices regarding power relations between the genders. These practices, which I call discursive practices, shape the discourse on women's entrepreneurship. In the following, I initially discuss feminist theory and gender and then define discursive practices. Thereafter, I identify such practices in the reviewed articles and discuss how they position the woman entrepreneur. The final section suggests some new directions for research on women's entrepreneurship.

What is Meant by Gender?

Feminist scholars introduced the term gender to distinguish between biological sex (human bodies with male or female reproductive organs) and socially constructed sex, i.e., social practices and representations associated with femininity or masculinity (Acker, 1992). The term has since then been co-opted, however, and is today often used in the same sense as biological sex--so also in the reviewed articles. By gender, the authors usually refer to men and women, and not to socially constructed sex. They also assume that men and women differ in important respects. Otherwise, there would be no reason for comparison.

This article takes a social constructionist or poststructuralist feminist position and uses the term gender in the original sense of the word, i.e., as socially constructed. Where does this belong in feminist theory? Following Harding (1987), feminist theory could be classified into three groups. In the first group, men and women are seen as essentially similar, in the second group they are seen as essentially different, and in the third group, similarities and differences are seen as socially constructed.

The first group, in which liberal feminist theory and feminist empiricism belong, sees men and women as essentially similar. It is inspired by liberal political theory, i.e., a human is defined by her ability to think rationally. …

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