We're Encouraging Female Entrepreneurship (And Leadership) All Wrong

The gender gap in the United States is starting to close, but we still have a long way to go. Despite representing more than 50 percent of the population, only 4 percent of CEOs in S&P 500 companies are women. Women do own 36 percent of all businesses, which has risen 30 percent since 2007, but it still marks an underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship and corporate leadership positions.

Why is it so important that women see equal representation in the first place? Well, for starters, women make up more than half the population; more women going into entrepreneurship means more total entrepreneurs, and therefore more economic growth for everyone in the country. It also means forward progress in closing the wage gap that’s plagued our country for decades and more working opportunities for women, who are less employed than men. But perhaps most importantly, it means having a more diverse range of voices in product development, research, and general power—and diversity means better, more forward-thinking ideas.

We’re doing more to encourage female entrepreneurship these days, but here’s the thing—we’re doing it all wrong.

Traditional Strategies

These are just some of the ways we’ve traditionally encouraged female entrepreneurship:

  • Grants and opportunities. For starters, the government and other organizations have attempted to offer more logistical incentives for women to start businesses; through the Office of Women’s Business Ownership within the SBA, there are grants and loans available to interested women. Plus, your business can become certified as “women-owned,” similar to “minority-owned,” which can make you more appealing when submitting bids to clients with a requisite diversity spend.
  • Networking. A number of women-centric networking groups have also cropped up, specifically targeted to helping interested women find like-minded professionals and become more powerful together. SheLeads Media and Ellevate are two strong examples here.
  • Support. There’s also a great deal of direct support available to women entrepreneurs; for example, the Hera Fund is a community of angel investors specifically dedicated to supporting female entrepreneurs, and women-centric accelerator and incubator programs are also on the rise, such as Women’s Startup Lab.

Quite honestly, these methods have shown some degree of progress—otherwise, they would have been abandoned. They’ve also done a great job of supporting women interested in entrepreneurship pursue their goals. However, they aren’t the most efficient or the best long-term solutions we can have.

Three Complicating Factors

What are these programs and opportunities missing? They tend to neglect three key considerations:

1. Interest.

Notice that all of our traditional methods have one thing in common; they all focus on women interested in becoming an entrepreneur. On the surface, this is a logical and obvious strategy—you need to enable the women who already have a trajectory into this field. But it neglects an important truth: women, especially young women, are less likely to be interested in becoming entrepreneurs. There are a variety of reasons for this, including a fear of success, conforming to gender roles in career paths, having a lack of female role models, and being taught in different ways. If we’re going to encourage more entrepreneurial women, we can’t exclusively focus on women who already have the desire—we have to do more to encourage children and young women to be interested in business ownership in the first place.

2. Focus.

Also consider the fact that women tend to have different areas of focus than their male counterparts, even when they do start businesses. STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) still see disproportionately low female participation and in some cases, performance—in large part due to gender biases we ascribe from a very early age. Since so many new startups focus on new and emerging technologies, this is a critical area for women to study early on.

3. Power.

The gender double bind states that women who never voice their opinions don’t get noticed, and women who do get punished. In reality, as stated by Adam Galinsky, this isn’t a gender double bind, but is rather a low-power double bind; women do not have as much power as men in this country. Even our women-targeted angel investment funds are still actively contributed to mostly by men. Men are making hiring decisions. Men are promoting people within major companies. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that’s incredibly hard to break, and leads to the perpetuation of stereotypes, gender roles, and limitations for women in the workplace.

The Solution

So what’s the ideal solution? Today’s adults are already ingrained in their society; men are already in power, women are already interested or uninterested in business, and adult women have already opted in or out of STEM subjects. We can and should work on doing more for these adult women, encouraging and supporting them in their efforts to climb corporate ladders or start businesses (and the programs we have a are a good start).

However, the bulk of our attention should be spent on the next generation. We need to do more to show young women and girls the importance of STEM subjects, teach them that they can and should create their own enterprises, give them more confidence and power to make their own decisions, and while we’re at it—teach our young men and boys that women are their equals, and are just as capable as they are in business and technology (if not more so).

Only by cultivating more interest, imbuing more power, and shifting the focus for the next generation of women will we start to close the female entrepreneurship and leadership gaps in this country. It may take a few decades, but in the long run it will surpass our duct-tape fixes in terms of effectiveness and practicality.