Entrepreneurship: what’s gender got to do with it?

Research into entrepreneurship indicates more gendered similarities than differences

The cultural conversation around entrepreneurship tends to focus predominantly on the male experience. Indeed, the main character in the typical entrepreneurial narrative is the entrepreneur (which is derived from the French word to undertake) and not the entrepreneuse.

This may not come as a surprise. Entrepreneurship has traditionally been associated with men and was once considered a form of masculinity. In years gone by, some even claimed that entrepreneurship required high levels of testosterone .

Although this may now seem absurd, this traditional association of entrepreneurship with masculinity and its embedded assumptions can have serious implications for those considering entrepreneurship who do not fit the ideal image of the male entrepreneur – including women.

Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady wondered in exasperation: "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Men, he mused, "are so pleasant, so easy to please". "Men are so decent, such regular chaps/ Ready to help you through any mishaps."


Although dating back to 1964 and from the realm of musical theatre, the sentiment could easily be applied to the arena of modern entrepreneurship where a range of policy interventions have emerged to “fix” the problem of the female entrepreneur . This, essentially, has meant finding ways to provide them with the tools and skills to become more like men in order for them to compete in a man’s world and fulfil their entrepreneurial potential.


For those women who decide to engage in entrepreneurial activity, they are positioned within the contemporary entrepreneurial discourse, including in popular media, as a discrete and separate category with their own label – female entrepreneurs or “mummypreneurs”.

This special classification only goes to confirm that there are normal entrepreneurs (men, family teams, partnerships) and, separate from them, are women. I have yet to hear a man introduced or introducing himself as a male entrepreneur or a daddypreneur.

If Ireland is going to truly evolve as an entrepreneurial nation, in addition to the language we use, we also need to change our cultural attitude towards entrepreneurship. This requires resetting our resilience to failure.

As a nation, we have a deeply embedded fear of failure – the shame of letting ourselves and others down and, heaven forbid, “What will the neighbours say?” An European Commission report found that almost three-quarters of Irish young would-be entrepreneurs are too scared of failure to start their own business.

Speaking at a recent DCU Business School event, Roslyn Bell of Commonhall Apartments defined failure as a “first attempt at learning”.

As a society we are not socialised to fail. We need to redefine what it means to fail. It is not the opposite of success, it is just feedback. And when it comes to entrepreneurship, testing, making smart mistakes and obtaining feedback are high-yield activities.

So how do we reframe the entrepreneurial experience? First, we need to accrue courage capital – the learning absorbed from our smart mistakes and experimentation.

Second, we need to learn the entrepreneurial pivot, which requires keeping one foot firmly in place as you shift the other in a new direction. Courage capital is the dance of entrepreneurship where the dance moves are learned over time, especially by interacting with others in your tribe or dance troupe.

Third, you need to surround yourself with a tribe of like-minded individuals who are doing big things. They will inspire you to do big things via their role-modelling behaviour.

We need to stop looking for differences and start focusing on inclusive entrepreneurship. There is a deeply embedded sense that men and women entrepreneurs are essentially different, yet critical research suggests there are more gendered similarities than differences.

At DCU we take this more inclusive standpoint – which we refer to as “entrepreneuring” – which broadens not only what is traditionally viewed as entrepreneurship and but also who can do entrepreneurship, regardless of social and cultural trappings.

So let’s change the cultural conversation around entrepreneurship by being aware of the language we use, the attitudes we adopt, the company we keep and the dance moves we strut.

Prof Maura McAdam is DCU director of entrepreneurship and author of Female Entrepreneurship