Engage Talk Recap: Entrepreneurship and gender

Maiken Nilsen Stensaker and Gry Alsos from Engage address an important theme, entrepreneurship and gender. Together with former entrepreneur Anita Skog from Innovation Norway and entrepreneur Lisbeth Bjerva, they discuss what it looks like today and whether we are on the right track.

By Tina Larsen

Maiken starts the discussion by asking if gender matters in regard to entrepreneurship. “Fewer women than men are involved in entrepreneurship in Norway. This is the case in other countries as well, but the differences between the sexes are actually greater in Norway. Only about 3 out of 10 start-ups in Norway are founded by women”, she states.

Gry Alsos, professor at Nord University Business School, has researched the role of gender in entrepreneurship. When asked about why there is an uneven distribution when it comes to entrepreneurship and gender, she says a lot of it is because of historical reasons and traditions as well as how this is lingering in society today. “It is about ideas, what is seen as the norm for men and women, and what kind of priorities one should have”, she says.

Female entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurs Anita and Lisbeth have both been working in a male-dominated industry as entrepreneurs. Maiken asks them how their experiences have been. “It has been very challenging”, Lisbeth says. She explains that it has been difficult to gain acceptance and to be taken seriously. “At the fair where we were going to promote our product, we were often asked about who was behind the product, and when we said it was us, we got a little snazzy smile back and questions about who “really” stands behind. It is clearly very provocative”, she says. On the positive side they stood out and received a lot of media attention. Anita also met some prejudice as a female entrepreneur and especially being a mother as well, but that gave her even more motivation to succeed and to show them that she could do it.

When it comes to financing, both Lisbeth and Anita experienced being asked other questions than men. “You get critical questions, such as whether you have considered the risk, why you should succeed and whether you can do it. You have to show that you have prepared and done a lot of research in advance, which I think men do not have to put as much effort into”, says Lisbeth. Anita have had the same experiences regarding financing.

I do not want to be defined as a female entrepreneur; I am an entrepreneur. I see now that it is important to speak out and highlight and define a good content in being a female entrepreneur.

Anita Skog, Innovation Norway

“It is cool to be a female entrepreneur. We should cheer for other female entrepreneurs and be proud of it”, Lisbeth adds.

Is there a difference in the way we talk about female and male entrepreneurs?

Gry says there is a difference in the way we talk about female and male entrepreneurs in which we do not talk about “male entrepreneurs”. “There are entrepreneurs and there are female entrepreneurs. When we talk about female entrepreneurs, we refer to something special – to another type of entrepreneur”. She refers to research findings which shows that the financiers tell women to be careful not to fail, while to men they tell them to seize the opportunity and be ambitious. This is done unconsciously, and she explains that there is some sort of care for female entrepreneurs.

Lisbeth experienced that she and her partner often got portrayed as young and dreamy in the media. “Instead of saying that we had goals and ambitions, they said we had hope”. She refers to a TV-series she attended where they got described as two young girls even though there where men her same age also attending. “They were portrayed as successful without even having a product, while we had a finished product and were portrayed as young”, she says. “As a female entrepreneur you get a softer approach. There is less focus on business and the portrays are more playful when female entrepreneurs get coverage by the media. Society is steeped in attitudes about gender and therefore, media reports can be colored by it”, Anita says. 

What about change?

“In the big picture, things are slowly moving forward”, Gry says, but confirms that there is a positive development. “Entrepreneurship has become cooler, especially among young women. It is important to stand out as a female entrepreneur because then you can gradually change the image. Therefore, it is necessary to present those stories of female entrepreneurs”, she states.

We need entrepreneurs to succeed in transitioning to a more sustainable society. It is then stupid to slow down women. We need experience from different industries, and we need to think about where the potential for value creation is. The more diverse, the more original things will emerge.

Gry Alsos, Professor at Nord University Business School

Anita agrees and says it is important for women to help and participate in shaping the future.

When asked about what is needed to increase the attractiveness of being a female entrepreneur, Lisbeth says we must continue to promote female entrepreneurs. “It is important to create good examples, to create someone you can identify with and look up to”, she says.