Popular belief loves to characterize entrepreneurs as “Type A” personalities who are competitive, outgoing, impatient, aggressive, careless risk-takers – and predominantly male. And women are perceived as mild-mannered, nurturing business owners who subtly influence the world around them. Over time, these biases have translated into a misconception that female entrepreneurs are risk-averse and unwilling to make bold decisions that would enhance the growth of their businesses. If this were true, such reticence could impede business growth and innovation, and even affect the willingness of financial institutions to invest in their businesses.

More and more Canadians are considering self-employment – particularly since the Great Recession of 2007–2009, when many jobs became vulnerable to downsizing. In fact, the BMO Wealth Report titled “Entrepreneurs: Definitely not your ordinary business owner” showed that entrepreneurship is on the rise among a wide range of demographics, including new graduates concerned that their specialized skill sets will be underused in traditional workplaces and those in pre-retirement looking to keep sharp and social during their retirement years.1

Research recently commissioned by BMO Wealth Management found many similarities between male and female entrepreneurs, while some differences challenged more than a few misconceptions. This study, conducted by Carleton University researchers in conjunction with The Beacon Agency, interviewed 100 entrepreneurs of both genders on topics such as their motivation to open a business, their risk-taking behaviour and how their business growth was funded. BMO Wealth Management followed up this research with a survey of 803 entrepreneurs on some of the same metrics to improve their understanding of entrepreneurs and to learn how best to serve them.3

Common characteristics of male and female entrepreneurs

Motivation

Millions of Canadians find passion in their work as employees, but many feel the need or desire to pursue self-employment. Such entrepreneurs are motivated by a variety of factors, including a love of their work, a desire for independence and a need to produce income.

When asked about their motivation in starting a business, male and female entrepreneurs scored similarly on all responses. An overwhelming number of entrepreneurs of both genders were prompted to open a business in order to pursue greater freedom and flexibility, or to pursue their passion to create a specific product or service. The only minor differences were found in the necessity to generate income (favouring female entrepreneurs) and the desire for economic independence (favouring male entrepreneurs).3

Specifically, this desire for economic independence is consistent with findings previously reported by the BMO Wealth Report entitled “Women in Wealth: A financial golden age has arrived.” In that 2015 report, affluent and successful women were found to be concerned or fearful of running out of money in old age – the so-called bag-lady syndrome. With longer lifespans, the significant costs of child care, and continuing wage disparities, it is not surprising that women are increasingly drawn to self-employment.

Confidence

If entrepreneurs of both genders are similarly motivated, is there a difference in their self-efficacy?2 This is the belief in one’s own abilities. According to the Carleton study, male and female entrepreneurs scored similarly in their confidence to succeed with their business, and furthermore women reported that their confidence in their abilities increased with experience and business success.2 These results were echoed by the BMO survey, which found that 64% of men and 72% of women surveyed felt “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in making risk-related business decisions. It would therefore appear that the assertion that women are risk-averse when it comes to business decisions is not supported by either study.

Entrepreneurs of both genders showed a correlation between their motivation to open a business and the likelihood that they would make risk-related decisions. According to the research, entrepreneurs who are motivated by interest, confidence and a desire for independence are more likely to make risk-related decisions than those who start a business because of a need for income.2 Perhaps then, motivation is the main predictor for risk-aversion, not gender.

If risk-related behaviour were really linked to gender, one would expect to see differences in the growth rates and the rates of innovation between businesses run by men and women. To the contrary, small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) businesses grow at a rate of 20% per year irrespective of the gender of the controlling ownership stake.2 Furthermore, the rate at which SMEs drive innovation is similar across both genders. Innovation – by its very nature – involves taking risks to create a new product or service. It would appear that there is very little evidence to support the contention that men are risk takers – bold (verses cautious) and women are risk-averse – cautious (verses bold).

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