Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pride, Power, Prejudice and the Woman Entrepreneur Part I

by Jean Brittingham

The Dilemma

As our research continues and our insight into women’s unique strengths in family, society and business deepens, I have become fonder of what I am calling in-born AND learned theory. Many scientific fields have studied the question of nature v. nurture attempting to answer it from a hypothesis of one ideology dominating the other. While typical of our current patriarchal cultural context, which requires a “winner” (and by default a “loser), this approach is not always useful or beneficial to the majority of those who live in society.

What is useful is to observe how in-born tendency and learned behaviors have worked together to shape our society and design our cultural reality. Ultimately, we need to shift to a culture that works better for more of society.

I’m in possession of a “secret study” given to me by a banking insider. I can’t link that document here because it was given to me confidentially. The singular question of the study was, “why do men entrepreneurs so often get the loans they need when women most often do not.” The results were stunning.

Over 100 loan officers across 70 or so banks were involved. The business plans used were the same in EVERY case.  Men received their loan approval 83% of the time. Women only 27% of the time!

The study was done in 1997 and I do believe that we are making progress—there is a growing appreciation that women business owners are going to be a significant part of a recovering economy and moreover women have proven to be very good bets in their ability to repay debt. It’s good business to do business with women.

Still, this more recent study in Australia gives pause.

The loan officers in the study were interviewed immediately after either approving or declining the loan. There were a number of interesting findings, but the ones that intrigued me the most focused on two areas—confidence and perception of power.  These results offer a peak into the culture we’ve created and currently live in. Fortunately, they also give us insights on how to begin the shift towards a more beneficial culture.

According to the interviews, women loan-seekers came across (to both male and female loan officers) as less “full of pride” about their ventures and when asked if they were confident about their ability to meet their business plans, the women waivered.  They said yes, but then they offered alternative ways that they would meet their obligations should something go wrong! This highly responsible attitude was seen as a lack of confidence on the part of these women.

Further, the women were not very forceful in their interviews. They did not push back against the questioning and did not seem adamant that they should get the loans. They were described variously as unsure, not confident and not committed.  They were perceived as not entrepreneurial enough.

Boldness is a Double-Edged Sword

The perception of personal power and pride required for entrepreneurial success is not insignificant. To the outside observer, entrepreneurs can seem audacious and over-confident. 

This is one of the primary areas where gender differences created by nature and nurture are producing challenges for women entrepreneurs. We must learn to be bold, confident--almost arrogant about our great ideas and in particular about the unique skills we possess to make our business succeed.

Yet, where do we learn to do this? Good question.  Our families are not typically the place. It is still very much the norm to expect girls to be quiet and cute. I am appalled by how often the young girls in my life are told they are cute and how infrequently they are told they are clever, creative and brave.

The traditional business setting has certainly not been the place to learn or practice these skills.  In the corporate world, most women who speak strongly for their ideas are seen as shrill, threatening and “bitchy.” As subtly illustrated in this Glass Hammer post, women are still being encouraged and trained in how to navigate a man’s world by playing the game by their rules.

I should admit here that I completely love the slogan, “they call me bitch like it’s a bad thing.” It seemed to me the best way to embrace the fact that your vocal intelligent opinion was going to get you branded no matter how nice you really are! 

But let’s be honest.  Women are generally going to be nicer, less arrogant and more focused on win-win than men. Historically, women have been and are the nurturers of society and somewhere along the way the natural propensity to nurture got branded as soft, weak and demure.  The tendency to nurture is “in-born.”  But for that, the survival of the species would be seriously at risk.

Labeling nurturing as a “soft skill,” putting most things that women do well in that category, and then making these skills seem silly or out of place in business, is a function of learned behavior; the result of a male dominated business context. It’s an example of how our conversations have shaped and created our culture.

The irony is that there is nothing soft about nurturing. Having babies, raising children, and bringing communities together; caring for the injured and dying and assuring that everyone is physically and emotionally cared for? That’s definitely the TOUGHEST job in the world.

And most men will not argue that point.

What they do argue about is the role these skills play at work. Yet, even there, evidence mounts that what women bring in terms of social intelligence, team leadership excellence, creative win-win ability and a deep understanding of how to create robust and interdependent networks is going to be deeply needed now and into the future.

So how do we stay true to our core abilities, our unique strengths, be ourselves, and be seen as powerfully capable entrepreneurs worthy of capital investment?

Stay tuned for Part II: The Solution. Coming soon!

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