July 2011

In my experience the largest remaining obstacle is how to integrate family life with the life of a scientist.”

Dr. Mary-Claire King

Abstract

This article considers some of the most recent research into women's participation in technology and entrepreneurship and connects it to the literature on social reproduction in order to paint a more complex picture of the social and environmental factors that influence women’s career choices. Specifically, it shows how lingering biases concerning women’s reproductive functions continue to shape both men and women’s expectations regarding women’s aptitudes, interests, and fitness for various roles. These biases and stereotypes create barriers to women’s progress at various levels, including the home, the workplace, and educational institutions. The article concludes with recommendations for how educators and entrepreneurs in science and technology can promote the inclusion of women among their ranks.

Introduction

The question of why women are so conspicuously absent from the fields of science, engineering, and business has been asked many times and received vastly differing answers. Responses often take the form of a heated debate between nature and nurture. Among the many hypotheses put forward by academics and lay authors alike are the following:

  1. Women are too uncompetitive or risk adverse and thus less successful than men (Mansfield, 2006).

  2. Women have less interest or aptitude than men in science and technology (Lawrence, 2006).

  3. Career expectations in these fields follow a normative male model that inherently privileges men and disadvantages women (Marlow and Patton, 2005).

While some of these hypotheses touch on actual obstacles impeding women’s success in business in technology, all of them need to be qualified by a further investigation into the social, structural, and economic conditions that underlie these obstacles. Consequently, this article will consider some of the most recent research into women's participation in technology and entrepreneurship and connect it to the literature on social reproduction in order to paint a more complex picture than any one of these single perspectives provides.

This article will begin with a brief critique of the debates about women in technology and entrepreneurship, and in society more generally. This will be followed by a discussion of women’s experiences of science and technology programs in university. Next, it will consider women as entrepreneurs more generally. Third, it will examine women’s relationship with social reproduction. The article will conclude with recommendations for how educators and entrepreneurs in science and technology can promote the inclusion of women among their ranks.

A Feminist Critique of Research into Women in Business

Before examining the subjects of women in entrepreneurship and technology, it is important to note a few caveats when discussing research into issues affecting women. The first caveat is that women do not constitute one homogenous group but rather a spectrum characterized by differences in race, class, ethnicity, age, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation, among other things (Holvino, 2001). One of the primary critiques levelled at much organizational research in this area is that it does not take these differences into account, instead privileging sex over all other aspects of identity (Holvino, 2001). This focus necessarily ignores intersectional or contextual analyses that examine how sex interacts with other identity characteristics to change a particular group’s experience (Tatli and Ozbilgin, 2010). While recent reports on the status of women in traditionally masculine fields do include analyses based on race and ethnicity, the vast majority of the data are disaggregated according to sex alone (Hill, Corbett, and Rose, 2010).

A second important critique is that men are generally presented as the benchmark against which women are measured, a research methodology that implicitly continues to assume that masculinity is the status quo and that femininity is the difference that needs to be explained (Holvino, 2001). This perspective has dominated since the early 19th century’s debates on the role of women in society (“The Woman Question”) and dates back to the earliest recorded writings of classical philosophers trying to define the mysterious nature of woman (Woodbridge, 1984). Comparisons are unavoidable when describing the presence of perceived differences between two groups, but quality research examines the reasons behind the disparity on both sides (i.e., for both men and women, not women unilaterally). Even when the methodology used examines all perspectives equally, the language used to describe the results or even the research question itself can define masculinity as a neutral norm: for example, consider the change in problem definition that would be caused by renaming the American Association of University Women’s report “Why So Few?: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” (Hill, Corbett, and Rose, 2010) to “Why So Many Men?”

These critiques apply to the sections that follow in that this article is necessarily constrained by the previous research available, which may or may not take contextual analyses into account or succeed at making comparisons without implicit biases. For example, while this article will attempt to focus on North America as its area of analysis, assuming that all women in this group share the same experiences neglects not only regional differences but also the experiences of immigrant women, especially those from nations where women’s acceptable roles are more constrained. Consequently, further research is required to develop a clearer conception of the issues facing women located at any given point along the spectrum, in relation not only to men but also to each other.

Women in Science and Technology

To determine why women entrepreneurs are uncommon in technology, a first set of questions to consider is how and why women decide (not) to pursue studies or careers in these fields.

One argument that has received statistical support is that women and girls are generally less interested in science and technology, engineering and math (STEM) (Corbett, 2011). However, since personal preferences and interests are influenced from birth by a multitude of external factors including the values and opinions of one’s parents, friends, culture, class, and society, this statistical difference requires further investigation to understand its roots. Note that this focus does not assume inherent differences between men and women in terms of aptitude as some academics have done (Lawrence, 2006).

With the goal of examining both personal and external factors, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) produced a report (Hill, Corbett, and Rose, 2010) that demonstrates eight reasons why fewer numbers of women pursue careers in STEM fields, generally related to social and environmental factors, educational climates, and continuing biases:

  1. Beliefs about differences in intelligence

  2. Stereotypes about both men and women

  3. Women’s self-assessment

  4. Differences in spatial skills

  5. The university/college student experience

  6. Attitudes of university and college faculty

  7. Implicit biases regarding women’s interests and abilities

  8. Workplace biases about women’s competence and likeability

The complex picture that the AAUW report presents is one of barriers at many levels. According to its findings, biases in the perspectives of parents, educators, and institutions can have a major influence on girls’ and women’s interests as well as their assessments of their own aptitudes. Other studies have corroborated the fact that women often rate their skills and abilities below those of their male colleagues (Grant, 1983). Girls show high levels of interest and aptitude in science and math in childhood, and this interest only declines with age as negative biases and stereotypes increasingly come into play (see Figure 1). When girls are encouraged to learn about STEM and given validation and support for their abilities and interests, they are far more likely to be successful.

Figure 1. “How it Works”

Image:july_jewell1.png

By Randall Munroe: licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Another social barrier that the AAUW report does not mention but that fits in the context of stereotypes and biases is perceptions of opportunities for social relationships in STEM fields. According to discussions surrounding the recent introduction of Mattel’s computer engineer Barbie, some women believe that STEM occupations carry negative stereotypes that will impede their ability to attract romantic partners. Although websites such as Geeks are Sexy are attempting to rehabilitate the image of “the geek”, science and technology are still strongly associated with social awkwardness in the popular imagination, as evidenced by the success of primetime television programs such as The Big Bang Theory.

The fear of social stigma may be inherited as much from pop culture as from the attitudes of parents: one female computer science major has recalled her mother warning her she would “never find a boyfriend” in her program of choice. Blogger Ruby Slater has also perceived this concept at play in the subtexts of a recent book aimed at teaching girls about the benefits of studying computer science. Specifically, she notes that The Princess at the Keyboard: Why Girls Should Become Computer Scientists places a high degree of emphasis on the married status of the successful women computer scientists it presents as examples, as if to say, “Don’t worry, girls. Computer scientists can land a man and procreate.”

This association of STEM fields in particular with aloneness is interesting considering the also widely held opinion on the Internet that finding a husband during university is practically impossible regardless of discipline. However, it makes sense given the AAUW’s reports of women in STEM departments experiencing high levels of isolation and loneliness during their degrees.

This isolation may also be due to lack of respect or feelings of women’s lesser competence or likeability compared to men in the same field or position (Grant, 1983). According to Stanford neurobiologist Ben A. Barres (2006), professional women in these areas also receive less respect than their male counterparts. Uniquely positioned to comment on the experiences of both men and women due to his mid-life transition from female to male, he reflects that “the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Similar attitudes toward women may also contribute to the extremely low number of women who participate in the open source community (according to recent studies, women comprise as little as only 1.5% of all open source developers). Portrayed as constituting an “old boys network”, male open source developers are credited with making publicly misogynistic comments that alienate women and discourage them from participating in projects. For further discussion of related issues, see the June 2009 OSBR issue on “Women in Open Source”.

As we will see next, these concerns about likeability among successful women in STEM fields also apply to women in business.

Women in Entrepreneurship

One of the principal explanations given for the relative absence of women entrepreneurs is that women are too risk adverse or insufficiently competitive to succeed in this area (Mansfield, 2006). However, recent studies (Benenson et al., 2011) have shown that women are indeed both competitive and risk-taking, but that they use different strategies and demonstrate these qualities in a different way.

Regarding risk in particular, stereotypes that associate risk-taking with masculinity and cautiousness with femininity have been criticized in detail. As “Risky Business: Busting the Myth of Women as Risk Adverse” (Gupta et al., 2009) discusses in depth, a survey of 650 women managers found that while those surveyed were less likely to take explicitly financial risks, over 80% reported having pursued high-risk professional opportunities, many of which involved risking personal capital. Their overall findings suggested that women were just as risk-taking as men but were caught in a double bind: stereotypical notions about women’s risk adversity cause their aptitude to either go unnoticed or be perceived negatively as “cockiness”.

Instead of lesser aptitudes for entrepreneurship, a different consideration that may instead be holding women back from achieving the same levels of success as men is access to the start-up capital needed to establish new businesses. According to Susan Marlow and Dean Patton in “All Credit to Men? Entrepreneurship, Finance, and Gender” (2005), women not only begin new businesses with fewer finances, but also experience additional barriers to acquiring other sources of capital as compared to their male counterparts. As cited in the 2010 Scorecard of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, female-owned businesses rely primarily on internal sources of start-up capital, while male-owned business have greater access to external sources. Further, female-owned businesses begin with approximately 55% of the start-up assets and 37% of the first-year revenues and profits reported by male-owned businesses,

As the Simmons School of Management published in 2009, women own 40% of all businesses in the United States but only receive about 5% of venture capital investment. There are various reasons for this disparity at the institutional level, primarily relating to implicit biases in what venture capital firms value in applicants and business models. Although men and women may have different communication styles, it is important to note that behavioural expectations of men and women differ, so that even women who exhibit so-called masculine traits of assertiveness and risk-taking will not be perceived the same way as similar men. Overall, the consequence of this disparity is that women entrepreneurs beginning new businesses with lower amounts of start-up capital will necessarily be constrained from investing in higher levels of innovation and thus be unable to generate as much growth as better-funded firms.

Women and Social Reproduction

A theme that has begun to emerge in the preceding sections is the influence of societal and personal expectations relating to social reproduction on women's academic and career paths. According to feminist political economy (Luxton and Corman, 2001), social reproduction is defined as “the activities required to ensure day-to-day and generational survival” and tends to refer to the (often unpaid) domestic labour involved in maintaining and reproducing a healthy workforce: acquiring and preparing food, providing clean clothes, child-rearing, elder care, etc. Women have been responsible for the majority of this work throughout history, and recent studies have shown that this remains the case even in the most advanced Western nations today (Bezanson, 2006).

Women’s association with social reproduction influences the professional opportunities available to them in at least three ways: i) by maintaining stereotypes and assumptions about women’s characteristics and fitness for various roles; ii) by shaping women’s self-assessment and career aspirations; and iii) by creating barriers to certain kinds of employment or risk-taking due to the additional burdens of care work.

Regarding the first two points, women’s role in social reproduction is intrinsically linked with beliefs about women being nurturing, emotional, and empathetic in nature, attributes that are considered inferior to the logical and analytical nature supposedly possessed by men (Lawrence, 2006). Among other effects, persistent attitudes regarding women’s responsibility for care work have such repercussions as discriminatory practices relating to hiring and the availability of credit. According to UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, women continue to be paid less than men, have less job security, and have less access to both higher wage work and financial support for starting small businesses. However, this is not due simply to institutions valuing men and women differently: as Dr. Sean Lyons has discussed, women also have consistently lower expectations regarding career salaries and advancement, especially in traditionally masculine fields, and potentially due to their desire to balance work with personal life.

The burden of responsibility for social reproduction can also constrain women’s ability to succeed in or even pursue certain kinds of work. As noted by Dr. Mary-Claire King regarding the need for institutional commitment to support working mothers, the ability to find adequate childcare has a significant impact on the careers of women scientists in academia: “At institutions where there is child care on site, where it is subsidized, where there are enough places for assistant professors to have their children, women do well. And at institutions where it is assumed that you will make your own arrangements, women do less well.” Of equal importance in her statement, however, is the fact that childcare considerations have no such notable impacts on science academics who are also fathers. Responsibility for childcare is also cited as a reason why women developers are conspicuously absent from open source, since women with families are less able to commit to working the evenings and weekends that international projects often require (Weiss, 2005).

Notably, childcare is not the only aspect of social reproduction that has a major impact on women: another is eldercare. As Dr. Linda Duxbury has noted, both women and men are choosing to have fewer children and start their families later in life in order to focus on careers; however, aging parents are inevitable and few community supports are available to provide needed care, thus downloading full responsibility onto the family.

In terms of the ability to pursue entrepreneurship, responsibility for care work combined with limited financial resources can severely impact women’s risk tolerance. Women’s average financial situation tends to fall below that of men; UN Women even estimates that women constitute 70% of the global poor. On a more local level, Statistics Canada reported in 2007 that women represent 80% of all single-parent households, and in 2009 that significant gaps in earnings (up to 20-30%) developed between women with and without children over time, largely attributed to career interruptions due to child-rearing.

Having already noted the impact of start-up capital on new ventures and women’s decreased access to funding, the connection between women and lower income explains a significant barrier to the success or size of new businesses. For the common scenario of single mothers who are wholly responsible for both breadwinning and social reproduction, the reality is that they do not have the time or money to invest in entrepreneurship. Forget risk adversity: women in this position simply have no risk tolerance.

Current Solutions and Future Recommendations

Many initiatives are currently in place to encourage more women to pursue paths in science, technology, and entrepreneurship. Among these are programs like Michigan Technological University’s Get WISE and NASA’s Women in STEM High School Aerospace Scholars (WISH) program that invite high school girls to explore science and engineering. Other initiative like MentorNet and Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT) aim to provide support and mentorship for women already in STEM careers.

Regarding entrepreneurship, universities and not-for-profit organizations have begun offering scholarships to attract women into entering management programs. In the United States, a new national startup alliance has been announced that will promote and support increased diversity in high-tech businesses.

At a more juvenile level, toys like computer engineer Barbie and the recent influx of pink-coloured computer accessories (keyboards, mice, laptops, etc.) are hoped to encourage young girls to take up a greater interest in computer science and engineering.

However, while these various initiatives may well increase the interest of women and girls in both STEM and entrepreneurship, they are not sufficient to alleviate implicit assumptions about women’s nature and their supposedly natural association with social reproduction and care work. In order for women to reach their maximum potential in these areas, the responsibility for care work and normative male models of employment that do not leave room for balance between personal and professional life will need to be shifted. Clearly these shifts require long-term changes to social structures that are beyond the scope of this article.

In the meantime, however, there are certain things that organizations and educational institutions can do to help promote women and girls’ self-confidence and interest in science, technology, and entrepreneurship:

  1. Provide training to increase awareness of implicit biases against women. For example, instructors and investors who have learned to recognize their own assumptions and understand the different ways women are socially constrained to communicate may be more likely to evaluate the merits of female candidates on par with similar male counterparts. As a start, Harvard University provides an exercise to help reveal implicit biases.

  2. Promote inclusive workplaces and academic departments. Encourage women to become integrated into the community through mentorships and social events.

  3. Continue to make visible successful women in entrepreneurship and science and technology, and provide young women entering these fields access to female faculty and industry role models.

  4. Begin teaching girls about science, technology, and entrepreneurship earlier in life. Many North American high school curricula have finally begun teaching business studies over the past few years, and independent organizations exist to support youth in pursuing entrepreneurship. Tailor individual programs or events to increase girls’ interest and provide them with the additional social and intellectual skills they need to be successful in male-dominated areas.

  5. Provide flexibility in working arrangements and offer childcare services/support to help attract and retain female faculty at educational institutions. Offering flexibility and support to female students will make it possible for a broader spectrum of women to complete degrees while balancing care responsibilities.

  6. Perform more specialized research into conditions affecting women in different contexts to learn more about what is required

Overall, the key issue at the root of all others is how society imagines women’s abilities, interests, and suitability for various roles. One major step in promoting increased numbers of women professionals in STEM and entrepreneurship is to implement institutional change coupled with programs that alleviate the burden of social reproduction (such as national childcare). At the same time, however, it is necessary to teach both young girls and boys to believe in the value of girls and the diversity of personal and career opportunities available to them.

Conclusion

To demonstrate why few women pursue careers in science, technology, and business, this article has examined some of the most recent research into the social and environmental factors affecting women in these areas. The results of considering women’s experiences as children, wives, mothers, students, professionals, and entrepreneurs found that social pressures related to women’s so-called need to marry, procreate, and provide care for a family were common in all fields. In other words, societal structures and expectations that continue to impose most of the responsibility for social reproduction onto women provide a major barrier to their success in two ways: i) by requiring women to commit a significant amount of time and effort to unpaid care work instead of career advancement, and ii) by perpetuating stereotypes and implicit biases that women are, by nature, best suited to this type of care work and less suited for more intellectual pursuits. The recommendations provided are intended to help women and girls see past these biases by helping them discover their own aptitudes and interests in technology and business, successful role models to follow, and welcoming communities to join. However, on the long-term, what is most needed is a redefinition — or better yet, an eradication — of the concept of “women’s work”, so that responsibility for social reproduction is balanced equally between men and women. Based on the current state of the industry, only when women become able to choose their own career paths without social repercussions will they achieve equal levels of participation and success in these areas.

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