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Why Women Entrepreneurs Underestimate Themselves - And What We Can Do About It

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By Susan Duffy, Babson College

This post was originally published on Footnote, a website that brings academic research and ideas to a broader audience.

A recent report finds that more than 200 million women across the world are starting and running new businesses. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), although men are still 50% more likely to become entrepreneurs, women are steadily gaining ground. The gender gap narrowed by 6% from 2012 to 2014, and in ten nations women are now just as likely as men to start new businesses.

These women are bringing innovative products and services to market, creating jobs, driving economic growth, and providing for their families and communities. At Babson College's Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), where I serve as Executive Director, we're working to change the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the U.S. so that we can soon join the list of countries that fully harness the innovation and leadership potential of their entire populations.

One gender gap we're concerned about at CWEL relates to how men and women see themselves as entrepreneurs. According to the GEM report, while women are nearly as likely as men to identify potential business opportunities around them, they are significantly less likely to view themselves as capable of starting a business to address these opportunities and are more likely to fear failure if they do. In the U.S., for example, 46% of women believe they have the skills and knowledge needed to start a business, compared to 61% of men.

These findings are part of a broader trend documented in numerous studies, in which men tend to overestimate their professional abilities and performance while women underestimate their capabilities. In a survey of members of the U.K.-based Institute for Leadership & Management, half of women managers reported feeling self-doubt about their careers and work performance, compared to less than a third of men. Men are four times as likely to ask for a raise, and women typically ask for less during salary negotiations than men.

This gender gap in self-perception is important because research shows that confidence and self-efficacy affect performance in school, work, and even simple problem-solving tasks. Simply put, if you don't believe you can do something, you are less likely to try it, and to do it well, regardless of your abilities. Indeed, the GEM report found that in countries where women are less likely to see themselves as capable of starting a business, they are less likely to become entrepreneurs.

Confidence plays an especially large role in entrepreneurial momentum. Launching a successful business isn't just a matter of having innovative ideas and superior skills; it requires boldness, courage, and a tremendous amount of faith in one's own abilities.

How can we equip women with the courage they need to become entrepreneurs? Much of the conversation over the past few years has focused at the individual level, exhorting women to "lean in" and close the "confidence gap" themselves. At CWEL we take a different approach. We believe entrepreneurial self-efficacy - a person's confidence that they have what it takes to succeed in launching a business - is cultivated and influenced by the environment and ecosystem in which they operate.

Entrepreneurs at a coaching event hosted by the WIN Lab at Babson College's Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL).

Women aren't less likely to see themselves as entrepreneurs simply because they lack overall confidence. They're responding to messages they receive from the world around them about who is and isn't supposed to lead and take risks. Only 15% of venture capital-funded companies have a woman on their executive team and a mere 3% have a woman CEO. People are twice as likely to respond positively to the same pitch given by a man as by a woman. This gender discrimination comes on top of the already-daunting fact that half of new businesses fail within five years. Perhaps women who hesitate to start businesses in such an environment aren't risk-averse, they're risk-rational.

At CWEL, we're working to change the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the messages women receive about who can and should start a business. We're also equipping individual women with the courage to transform themselves from individuals with ideas to entrepreneurs with impact. Our Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab cultivates self-efficacy by shifting participants' sense of what is possible for themselves and their businesses.

Over the course of eight months, participants plan, experiment, and learn within a community of fellow entrepreneurs who provide support, feedback, encouragement, and knowledge sharing. Each WINner is paired with a compatibility-matched coach and has access to an expert circle of women industry leaders. These successful women help build participants' self-efficacy by acting as role models, sharing their stories, and offering invaluable insights about their entrepreneurial journeys.

Participants in CWEL's 2015-2016 Women Innovating Now Lab.

Rather than the traditional accelerator approach of bringing business ideas to market, WIN Lab focus on preparing potential entrepreneurs to be market-ready and to "go big" with their ideas. For entrepreneurs like Savitha Sridharan, WIN Lab participant and founder and CEO of renewable energy company Orora Global, the program helps women "believe in [their] dream and commit to act on it."

The GEM report and other research suggest that shifting self-perception is a key part of encouraging women's entrepreneurship. But while confidence is critical, it isn't an individual problem. It's an ecosystem problem. Instead of asking women to lean in, we must give them the tools, support, and relationships that all entrepreneurs need to succeed - resources that men often have access to without even realizing it.

Susan Duffy is the Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), where she educates, inspires, and empowers women to transform their entrepreneurial potential into social and economic impact. CWEL's latest innovation is the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab a venture accelerator for women who are ready to think big, be bold, and grow successful companies. Susan earned her Ph.D. from The George Washington University. She is an advisor to several early stage companies, an angel investor, and sits on the Tory Burch Foundation board, the Walmart Foundation International Advisory Committee, and the Boston Small Business and Entrepreneurship Advisory Council.

  • (a) GEM is the largest ongoing research project on entrepreneurship, tracking involvement in new business development in over 100 economies across 16 years. GEM is a collaborative effort involving institutions from around the world. Babson College co-founded the project in 1999 and serves as its lead sponsor in the U.S.
  • (b) Both worldwide and in the U.S., 11% of women are involved in entrepreneurial activity, compared to 16% of men globally and 17% of men domestically.
  • (c) Many developing countries have greater gender parity in entrepreneurship rates than developed countries. The ten countries where women are just as likely (or more likely) as men to be entrepreneurs are: El Salvador, Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Zambia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana.
  1. Kelley, Donna, Candida Brush, Patricia Greene, Mike Herrington, Abdul Ali, and Penny Kew. 2015. "GEM Special Report: Women's Entrepreneurship." Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). Babson Park, MA: Babson College. GEM defines entrepreneurship by the Total Early-stage Entrepreneurship Activity (TEA) rate, which measures the percentage of working-age adults (18 to 64 years) in the process of starting a business or operating an early-stage business (one that has paid wages for less than three and a half years).
  2. Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM). 2011. "Ambition and gender at work." London: ILM.
  3. Babcock, Linda and Sara Laschever. 2007. Women Don't Ask: Negation and the Gender Divide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Mazei, Jens, et al. 2015. "A Meta-Analysis on Gender Differences in Negotiation Outcomes and Their Moderators." Psychological Bulletin. 141(1): 85-104.
  5. Greven, Corina U., et al. 2009. "More Than Just IQ, School Achievement is Predicted by Self-Perceived Abilities - But for Genetic Rather Than Environmental Reasons." Psychological Science. 20(6): 753-762. Judge, Timothy A., et al. 2011. "The Power of Being Positive: The Relation Between Positive Self-Concept and job Performance." Human Performance. 11(2-3). Estes, Zachary and Sydney Felker. 2011. "Confidence Mediates the Sex Difference in Mental Rotation Performance." Archive of Sexual Behavior. 41(3): 557-570.
  6. Boyd, Nancy G., and George S. Vozikis. 1994. "The Influence of Self-Efficacy on the Development of Entrepreneurial Intentions and Actions." Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. 18: 63-77.
  7. Brush, Candida G., Patricia G. Green, Lakshmi Balachandra, and Amy Davis. 2014. "Women Entrepreneurs 2014: Bridging the Gender Gap in Venture Capital." The Diana Project. Babson Park, MA: Babson College.
  8. Brooks, Alison Wood, Laura Huang, Sarah Wood Kearney, and Fiona E. Murray. 2014. "Investors Prefer Entrepreneurial Ventures Pitched by Attractive Men." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111(12).
  9. Small Business Administration (SBA). 2014. "Frequently Asked Questions about Small Business." Washington, DC: SBA.
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