Challenge 10: Closing the Gender Gap in Entrepreneurship

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For Challenge 10, our group has decided to examine the gender gap in entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on the intersection of STEM and entrepreneurship. We have found estimates of the percentage of entrepreneurs who are women range from 37% to “approximately a third” to 15.5% (the latter estimate coming from a sample that is likely predominated by tech companies). Yet including women on start-up teams seems promising not just for women, but for the start-ups themselves: this study found that start-ups with at least one female founder outperformed all-male founder teams by 63%.

The genesis of this project idea was a recent exercise conducted in Jordan’s ES95r class. ES95r is a Start-Up Research and Development class at SEAS with 32 members (the majority in STEM fields) spread across 16 teams. Quite strikingly, there is only female student in the class. Professor Paul Bottino, Executive Director of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, had all 32 members complete this implicit bias study on the association between gender and field of study. As egalitarian as all of the men in the room purported to be, the test revealed a associative bias connecting females with liberal arts and men with science. Because STEM knowledge is particularly valuable in the age of internet/application start-ups, it was concluded that the above bias is a factor contributing to gender gap entrepreneurship. Unpacking this issue a bit further, the class determined that when creating a start-up, founders often enlist their roommates or best friends. This limits diversity among teams and only perpetuates the existing gender gap. It can also lead to the propagation of a “fratty” culture in start-ups, which may not be particularly appealing to the opposite sex.

We were able to corroborate and add to these findings with additional studies and interviews. Rachel Katz, a computer science major and teaching fellow at the University of Virginia, cited the lack of female role models in STEM and the media portrayal of females in tech as areas of concern. Seeing successful people who look like you in STEM majors, teaching roles, or careers, is crucial, according to Katz. She says she was lucky enough to find a female role model in the CS department her freshman year and remembers thinking: “If there’s one girl who did it, I can do it too!” However, she is also dismayed by the portrayal of female coders on TV as “pushy, masculine and tomboyish.”

Similarly, Katrina H., who started a company in China with her husband, found that role models helped inspire her interest in entrepreneurship and belief that she could be successful. As a child, she hadn’t considered entrepreneurship, but in college, she met classmates – both male and female – who were planning to run their own businesses, including a female friend who had already gained experience in her father’s business. In addition, a woman from her hometown is a founder/CEO of an IT company and has become a billionaire, while raising three children at the same time. Katrina said, “I think it’s so encouraging to see examples like that – not because that’s what all women should aspire to, but because it shows anything is possible, even though there are challenges.”

Dr. Laura Conkey, Professor Emerita of Geography at Dartmouth College, was the first female professor in her department and taught freshman seminars on women in science. Mary Adelaide asked her how she had forged her path as one of very few women in her field (and as a student at Radcliffe while the school was in the process of merging with Harvard, with a very unbalanced gender ratio). Like our other interviewees, Professor Conkey sees role models as highly important: for example, time spent assisting her older sister with doctoral research helped encourage her to pursue a PhD herself. In supporting girls in pushing back against societal norms, she says early intervention is key to instill a mindset that “girls can do anything” and that the career path – whether scientific or entrepreneurial – is cool and desirable. She believes it’s important for girls develop a “personality of persistence” and build their self-efficacy in the field through experiences where they can succeed. Professor Conkey feels that instilling respect for others among both boys and girls is essential, as she found she was most supported by those of her colleagues who defaulted to treating others with respect.

How can we correct this?

Alethea asked Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators and Most Likely to Succeed, if his research had led to any observations about what girls struggle with most when learning and creating. Wagner said that as a culture we need to become more comfortable with iterating. In the field, he noticed that girls especially were less likely to go back and make changes. Often they would spend so much time to create something perfect that they felt less inclined to make changes. He discussed the need to teach children to learn how to iterate on what they create, so they become less afraid of failure and more comfortable with the process, seeking to understand problems with their creations in order to develop more thoughtful solutions.

Alethea also asked John Kotter, a highly regarded speaker on the topics of leadership and change who visited James Honan’s Education Entrepreneurship course, “How do you use emotion or emotional design to lead change?” Kotter’s response can be summarized as follows: 

“Tell stories, and there is neurological evidence that shows that humans respond to stories. And, be emotional and use positive psychology, because others respond to emotions. If you use positive psychology in your everyday life, you can be doing many projects at once and run the project with the best results. You won’t fail because you are testing out many options. Someone even asked Thomas Edison how many times he failed before he made the light bulb, and Edison said it took 1,000 tries until he made the light bulb.”    

Drawing from these insights from women in entrepreneurship, women in science, and entrepreneurial experts, we are considering a working model of a “summer innovation experience” for middle or high school students, in which participants are assigned to diverse and mixed-gender teams. The idea is not only to force students outside of their circles and expose them to the benefits of a diverse team composition, but also to break down the stereotypes associated with start-ups (i.e. bros in a house living on pizza). Hopefully, a few teams will make it beyond the summer and serve as powerful examples for future participants. Key takeaways from our interviews include:

  • the importance of female role models
  • the need to equip girls with the confidence to persevere in their endeavors even when the odds are stacked against them
  • the need for both boys and girls to develop mutual respect and appreciation for the value of diversity within a team
  • the prevalence of stereotypes of start-ups that might discourage girls from participating
  • the importance of becoming comfortable with failure and learning to iterate
  • the challenge of making entrepreneurship more desirable to girls when society is sending conflicting messages

We have begun to research existing entrepreneurship camps and have examined the following:

  • BizCamps, offered by Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship – features a Girl Empower BizCamp. Info is a bit outdated so it’s unclear if they’re still b
    eing offered.
  • Icon Academy – “Teaching Teens to Monetize Their Talents” – This article spotlights the camp.
  • Startup Camp, offered by Catlin Gabel School, is a weekend event serving high school students in the Portland, Oregon, area. It doesn’t cater specifically to girls or explain how teams are formed, but they seem to have been sensitive to including diverse role models, as there’s a good balance of male and female organizers, student leaders, speakers, and mentors.
  • EXPLO Startup, on the campus of Wellesley (a women’s college), caters to students entering grades 8-10. From photos, it looks like more boys than girls participate, but it’s hard to be sure how they tackle this issue without more information. 
  • National Student Leadership Conference: Business & Entrepreneurship – offered at several different campuses nationwide, and includes guest speakers and tours of major businesses. Girls dominate the photos on the website, though examples of guest speakers are mostly male.

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