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‘Super women’ in entrepreneurial programs succeed despite challenges, MU study finds

Women students feel pressure to compensate for their gender in entrepreneurial programs, take on heavy course loads and extra responsibilities

March 21, 2019

Story Contact(s):
Austin Fitzgerald, fitzgeraldac@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Women entrepreneurs are on the rise in the U.S., with the number of businesses owned by women more than doubling from 1997 to 2017, a rate that outpaced men. Still, men account for about two-thirds of entrepreneurs worldwide, and a number of unique challenges exist for women entrepreneurs at each stage of their careers.

These facts prompted a researcher at the University of Missouri to examine how entrepreneurs were educated in the academic setting of an American four-year university. Through interviews with students and faculty — as well as direct observations of entrepreneurship courses and analyses of course materials — the study revealed a consistent picture of women preparing for entrepreneurial careers, noting three characteristics they largely shared:

  • They were high-achieving “super women.”
  • They faced real adversity.
  • They benefited from close relationships with mentors, family and friends.

“One of the biggest takeaways was that these entrepreneurial women were ‘super women,’” said Sara Cochran, director of entrepreneurship initiatives at the University of Missouri System and interim director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in MU’s Trulaske College of Business. “They were more likely than men to perform leadership roles despite being outnumbered in their classes, and they were often compelled to take on more responsibilities in group projects when men were less prepared. These were highly successful women with heavy course loads and multiple responsibilities in and out of class.”

In addition to conducting interviews, Cochran sat in during classes to observe how students participated. She noted that many women, despite strong competence and preparedness, were often reluctant to participate unless called upon directly. After a woman was called upon, however, other women were more likely to voluntarily participate. These students reported that they felt pressured by gender-based expectations, such as needing to dress nicely or defer to confident men during class discussions. The resulting need to “compensate for being a woman” might have encouraged “super women” to take on additional responsibilities, Cochran said.

“Not only did gendered expectations pressure women to outperform in an environment dominated by men, but that same environment fostered a sense of belonging with their entrepreneurial peers,” Cochran said. “Taken together, this describes a unique academic environment where women thrive despite the challenges.”

Cochran said instructors can help women succeed by varying the roles assigned in group projects and leveling the dress code so as not to conform to stereotypes. Academic programs can also prioritize providing mentors and encouraging peer relationships to help women build a strong support network.

The study, “What’s gender got to do with it? The experiences of U.S. women entrepreneurship students,” is forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Small Business Management.

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