Pay Attention To The Diversity And Challenges Of Women Entrepreneurs

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Research overwhelmingly shows that founding a new enterprise is more challenging for women than men, despite women owning 48% of South African construction businesses, women still struggled to be taken seriously.


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Research overwhelmingly shows that founding a new enterprise is more challenging for women than men.

Studies of women entrepreneurs across various countries have shown that they face marginalisation and isolation from business networks, sexual harassment and unfair treatment, challenges relating to patriarchal attitudes and social structures, as well as challenges in balancing the demands of business with private life.

Despite women owning 48% of South African construction businesses, women still struggled to be taken seriously, highlighting the major barriers created by gender stereotypes and societal norms for women operating in male-dominated industries.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa will be better able to reach their potential as engines of inclusive growth if more attention is paid to the barriers that hinder women entrepreneurs from contributing to economic development and job creation on the same footing as men.

Lacking access to financial resources and social capital, and having limited legitimacy in the business environment, female SME founders in South Africa and Kenya often must rely on their husbands or male business partners for funding, securing new business and gaining access to business networks.

The diversity of women entrepreneurs in Africa, in terms of the sectors they operate in, the types and size of their businesses, as well as their motivations and leadership styles, is often underestimated. This calls for government and private sector business support programmes and funding agencies to move away from a “one size fits all” approach to supporting female-led business start-ups.

These are among the research findings in a paper on women’s entrepreneurial leadership in Africa presented at the international Gender, Work and Organization 2023 (GWO2023) conference in Stellenbosch today (29 June),  hosted by the Stellenbosch Business School for the first time on African soil.

The conference which will see over 350 academic papers presented by scholars from over 45 countries worldwide between 28-30 June, aims to address issues concerning women and other marginalised gender groups, striving to reduce exclusion within society.

Dr Beldina Owalla, Research Fellow in the School of Strategy, Marketing and Innovation at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, said female business founders were often not taken seriously in male-oriented business and social settings, resulting in perceptions that they lacked leadership competency and expectations that they should “excessively outperform” their male counterparts in business just to be seen as equal.

“There needs to be greater attention paid to the gendered structural barriers and societal norms constraining women entrepreneurial leaders. This requires genuine and sustained commitment from all stakeholders in order to ensure more inclusive economic growth.

“Governments, business support, funding and development agencies should develop better understanding that women entrepreneurs are not a homogenous group, and develop more targeted approaches that ensure that policies are implemented effectively and support is provided to the intended groups,” she said.

Owalla said that greater representation of women in decision-making on business support and funding would “minimise the assumptions being made on the type of support that women entrepreneurs need”, and instead address their real needs in context.

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2020/21 report on women’s entrepreneurship found that more than 50% of women in developing countries see entrepreneurship as a path to a better future, and women entrepreneurs represent one in three growth-oriented SMEs active today.

“However, research also overwhelmingly shows that founding a new enterprise is more challenging for women than men,” Owalla said.

She said previous studies of women entrepreneurs across various countries had shown that they face marginalisation and isolation from business networks, sexual harassment and unfair treatment, challenges relating to patriarchal attitudes and social structures, as well as challenges in balancing the demands of business with private life.

Owalla’s paper at GWO2023 was co-authored with Philasande Sokhela, a lecturer at the Johannesburg Business School, Prof. David Pickernell of the University of Swansea, UK, and Prof. Karen Johnston of Portsmouth University.

The cross-cultural research aimed to understand how Kenyan and South African women business founders’ leadership styles and competencies contribute to the survival, growth and success of SMEs.

The study found that family support, level of education, previous work experience and socio-economic status contributed positively to women entrepreneurs’ ability to start a new venture and to identifying opportunities and accessing markets in order to ensure its survival and success.

“Spousal support is especially crucial in male-dominated sectors where requesting contracts and securing business sometimes requires a male figure to facilitate the process,” Owalla said.

She said that despite women owning 48% of South African construction businesses, women still struggled to be taken seriously, highlighting the “major barriers created by gender stereotypes and societal norms for women operating in male-dominated industries”.

The study also found that women entrepreneurs in Kenya and South Africa adopted various strategies to overcoming gender barriers in business, including positioning their businesses to take advantage of opportunities targeted at women-owned SMEs, and establishing advisory boards that provide guidance as well as support in accessing market opportunities and networks.

Owalla said research on the gendered aspects of entrepreneurial leadership in developing economies was limited, and this research had contributed to closing knowledge gaps.

“Most leadership research has been situated in corporate settings, which differ greatly from emerging ventures and small business contexts.

“There is a strong argument for greater understanding of leadership in the dynamic context of entrepreneurship, and particularly women’s entrepreneurial leadership, since there is growing recognition that women’s entrepreneurship is a fundamental promoting factor of inclusive economic growth and societal well-being globally.

“Additionally, the dominance of Anglo-American models and frameworks calls for building our understanding of how entrepreneurial leadership may vary in developing economies and under-researched regions such as Africa.”

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