Is not. Are too. White. Black. Day. Night.
This little interplanetary argument can be heard across almost any kitchen
table, assuming a man and a woman are present. Author John Gray widely
codified this gender difference into a common phrase with his best-selling
book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Gray's book looks at the gender differences from the standpoint of romantic
relationships. Let's move that notion from the bedroom to the boardroom:
Do men and women become entrepreneurs for different reasons? Do they
have different expectations of their business? And do they run their
In contacts with over 20 women business owners and other experts, few
saw big gender differences in entrepreneurial motivations or business
expectations. However, most argued that there are very clear gender
differences in ownership and managerial style and suggested that these
differences have real implications on how businesses are run.
Research on these issues could best be described as spotty—mostly
because, as one source put it, women entrepreneurship "has only
been around for 30 years." But while there do appear to be entrepreneurial
differences between the sexes, there are probably not as many as the
Mars-Venus stereotype implies.
Sources were mostly in agreement that lifestyle is a major factor for
many women entrepreneurs. "I wanted the independence," said
Ann Brice, owner of Brice Cohey Consulting in La Crosse, Wis. Brice
started her data base design firm in 1995, having previously worked
for a private firm and as an instructor at the local technical college.
Her husband "luckily" was employed as a professor at the
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which gave her the financial security
to break off on her own. It also gave her an added incentive to start
her own firm because her husband had summers off, not to mention long
Christmas and spring breaks. Brice said, "I was tired of having
to beg to have a day off" to spend with her husband.
Ultimately, Brice's marriage didn't make it, but her business survived.
As to whether she would have pursued her own business without that security
blanket, "I like to think I would have, but I don't know,"
Brice said. "You're struggling all the time. ... It's a lot of
work, but it was so worth it."
Milt Toratti counsels would-be entrepreneurs as a master facilitator
for the Riverbend Center for Enterprise Facilitation in Mankato, Minn.
He doesn't like putting labels on women entrepreneurs because "every
woman is different than the next woman. Every man is different from
another man. Everything is case-specific to the individual."
Still, Toratti believes that women and men have different priorities
toward entrepreneurship. Women see entrepreneurship as a way to express
their passion for something they love, to improve family time and lifestyle,
and to help support the family—in that order. Men, on the other
hand, approach entrepreneurship with the same priorities, but in reverse
order. "The pressure's on them to take care of the family first,"
Toratti has counseled some 1,200 clients in his career, about 40 percent
of them female. He said the trend of two-income families has been the
biggest push in women entrepreneurship—not for income reasons,
but because of lifestyle. Tired of the day-care routine—taking
kids to day care in the morning, picking them up, rushing in between—women
seeking counsel from Toratti say, "I'm tired of the rat race and
these external controls" on their personal and family life, he
He also is seeing more women start businesses after a family-changing
event, like divorce or death. Stay-at-home mothers, for instance, become
entrepreneurs once the kids go off to college. Faced with an empty nest,
they tell Toratti, "What the hell am I going to do now? ... I'm
here with the dog and what else is there to do?" he said. "They
want to fill that void."
Pam Krank is owner of The Credit Department Inc. in St. Paul and a board
member of the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Women
Business Owners (NAWBO). She said via e-mail that many women "think
of their companies as lifestyle businesses rather than corporate-building
businesses. Part of this is due to the fact that they start service
companies that have lower barriers to entry but less investment in infrastructure.
Many, many women like working out of their homes and having the flexibility
to work around their family schedules."
Research on the motivational differences between women and men is fuzzy,
even contradictory at times. A 2001 study by three female professors
from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, reviewed some
400 women business studies from the United States and United Kingdom.
"[M]ost studies conclude that the motivations for startup are
similar between women and men," the report stated.
But it's not hard to find studies saying otherwise. A 2001 study by
the Rochester Institute of Technology looked at gender differences among
MBA entrepreneurs, which gave researchers Richard DiMartino and Robert
Barbato a group "with similarities in ability, credentialism,
education and career stage."
The study concluded that men and women "choose an entrepreneurial
career for different reasons." Females put much higher value on
lifestyle choices—career flexibility and family-friendliness—than
did men, while men were much more concerned with wealth creation opportunities.
Be like Mike or Michelle?
When it comes to operational matters of running a business, it's widely
believed that women are "right-brain" owners (stressing
creativity and collaborative, values-based decision making), while men
are "left-brain" bosses (task-oriented, analytical, rational
and methodical). The Center for Women's Business Research (CWBR) studied
the matter a decade ago and announced that men and women business owners
"think differently, manage differently and define success differently."
Most people tend to agree. "Women run their businesses differently,"
said Mary Riebe of Metro State University in the Twin Cities. Men depend
on a triangular, top-down business model where "everybody knows
what everybody is supposed to be doing."
Women, on the other hand, tend to be "very nonhierarchical,"
Riebe said, and use a more circular model, with the business owner in
the middle, able to reach all movable parts of the business. "Just
because it's different doesn't mean it's better. But it is definitely
different," Riebe said. With momentum growing behind women business
owners, "I think how businesses are run is going to change dramatically,"
According to Krank, the NAWBO board member in Minnesota, "Women
are much stronger team builders I believe as a whole. We tend to get
much more loyalty out of our employees and clients, because we nurture
these relationships. Also, we're talented multitaskers. ... Speaking
as an employer of men and women, it's the women who can do an amazing
amount of things at once." Male-dominated corporations prefer
task specialization and delegation, but multitasking "helps us
[women] tremendously as entrepreneurs."
Numerous other female traits were noted by sources. One said that for
women, "decisions are made differently. It takes a little longer.
[Women] get more information. Sometimes that's perceived as hesitancy."
Another commented along the same lines. "Women create a space
and context to be listened to and cared about."
And another: "Men make decisions quickly. Business is business
and guys are clear about this. You keep the personal out of it. Feelings
don't matter. ... Men bring a drive and hunt mentality. [They] are here
Kerri Bandell owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Onalaska, Wis.,
near La Crosse. She believes it's easier for men to assume authority
and instill workplace discipline, and for workers to see men as bosses.
Meanwhile, many women—including Bandell—don't want to be
seen as a bad boss and are tolerant to a fault. She admitted to having
difficulty disciplining and firing subpar workers.
"I'm too nicey-nicey," Bandell said, acknowledging that
she's not doing her business any favors. "I'm accepting inferior
service [from employees]. ... As a business owner, that's very detrimental
to my business."
Then again ...
Despite the widespread anecdotal agreement, research shows that managerial
differences between the sexes might not be as stark as most imagine.
In a report awarded "research paper of the year" for 2003
by the CWBR, researchers Jennifer Cliff, Nancy Langton and Howard Aldrich
"challenge the assumption" that male and female business
leaders exhibit gender-specific traits—like males preferring labor-intensive
hierarchies or women being more sensitive bosses. The trio collected
data from 229 businesses (all in the same city) and found that gender
had no effect on "a firm's bureaucracy or the femininity of its
employment relationship." These findings hold, the authors stated,
"even in situations theoretically conducive to eliciting gender
The authors added that firms did not adapt the "masculine model
of organizing" across the board. Rather, "both male and
female owners manage their firms with a mix of masculine and feminine
approaches." Maybe the most interesting finding was that many
business owners believed they operated their businesses in gender-specific
ways. "[B]usiness owners tend to talk as if they organize and
manage their firms in different (and gender-stereotypic) ways, even
though they don't do so in practice," the report stated, concluding,
"[O]ur study clearly suggests that the effect of owner sex on
organizational characteristics and managerial practices is more of a
myth than a reality."
Theirs is not the first report to suggest the disconnect between gender
perception and business reality. Indeed, Cliff, Langton and Aldrich
point to a "large body of comparative research" reviewed
by Alice Eagly and Blair Johnson in 1990, "which indicated that
there are very few significant differences in the leadership behaviors
of men and women." The expectation that there are differences
"is more reflective of society's persistent belief in the existence
of sex differences."
The 2001 literature review by researchers at the University of Strathclyde
also challenged some of the supposed psychological differences between
male and female entrepreneurs as well as female entrepreneurs and nonentrepreneurs.
Research in these areas "has revealed few differences,"
the authors noted. "[T]he search for differences remains a popular,
albeit many believe a fruitless, theme."
It also stated that managerial gender difference "has been under-researched,"
but nonetheless noted that "[t]he view that women emphasize 'relational
dimensions' while men excel at 'task orientation' has been refuted by
some research studies. Nevertheless, the stereotypical view persists."
Maybe the biggest complicating factor sorting out this battle of the
sexes is that entrepreneurs have very different backgrounds and life
circumstances, which can dramatically influence the types of businesses
they start as well as their underlying motivations for doing so.
However, this complexity is not reflected in current research. Research
to date has not done a very good job of comparing entrepreneurs with
similar background or types of businesses to tease out the differences
that are truly gender based. As a result, what is available is fairly
shallow given the breadth of issues to consider and is by no means unanimous
in its conclusions.
The Strathclyde report concluded that research in women entrepreneurship
is fragmented, "has a lot of ambiguity" and has not built
systematically on previous work, which has resulted in "a lack
of cumulative knowledge."
Until those research gaps are covered, there will continue to be differing
opinions about the myriad issues related to gender and entrepreneurship—though
maybe no amount of research will ever bring Mars and Venus to full consensus.