See It, Be It: Challenging Stereotypes and Bias
Successful women entrepreneurs do not only support their families and local communities, drive economic growth and innovation, and create valuable opportunities for fellow Canadians. Their stories also help to inspire other women.
However, stereotypes surrounding entrepreneurship can have the opposite effect. Tightly wound connections between the word “entrepreneur” and white men in technology, like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, can serve to push women away from what may look like an old boys’ club. These stereotypes also shape the design of funding and training programs, incubators and accelerators, and influence financing decisions.
The 2021 Women Entrepreneurship Conference, presented by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) in partnership with the Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC) brought thought leaders together to discuss the gendered and culturally specific assumptions about entrepreneurship and the challenges they present to women. The event also marked the launch of WEKH’s new See It. Be It. Database, featuring over 1,000 award-winning, Canadian women entrepreneurs crushing entrepreneurial stereotypes and redefining who an entrepreneur is, what they look like, and what they do.
“These women are really changing the norm of what it is to be an entrepreneur,” began Suzanne Gagnon, Canada Life Chair in Leadership Education and Associate Professor in Leadership and Organization, University of Manitoba.
The Impacts of Stereotypes on Women Entrepreneurs
Gagnon set the foundation for the ensuing discussion with a look at WEKH research into entrepreneurial stereotypes, and their profound impacts on the experiences and aspirations of women entrepreneurs in Canada.
Stereotypes are assumptions that associate certain characteristics with certain groups of people, and are often deeply embedded in our culture.
Stereotypes fundamentally shape every level of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. At the Societal level, stereotypes influence how people are represented in the media, how policies are shaped, how infrastructure is developed, and how systems operate. They affect organizational strategies and programs at the Organization level, and are often reinforced through organizational culture too. At the Individual level, stereotypes shape individual beliefs, choices, and behaviours as well.
“There are social constructs that still exist in our media and elsewhere that associate women strongly with household and familial roles, and that consider men the standard or the norm when we talk about entrepreneurship,” Gagnon explained.
Gagnon identified three areas where the impacts of stereotypes on women’s entrepreneurship are particularly striking:
- Program Design
- In Canada, the economic development, innovation and skills strategies tend to be dominated with language that privileges science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—sectors where women entrepreneurs are underrepresented.
- Women are thought to be risk averse and to fear failure, and media representations reinforce this assumption by publishing stories that create what Gagnon calls a “deficit discourse.” These stories tend to focus on what women lack instead of their successes and talents. Since women do not fit the stereotype of what an entrepreneur looks like, Gagnon explained, they are less likely to receive funding from venture capitalists, angel investors, and other financiers.
- Business Supports
- Incubators and accelerators tend to be designed to support technology-based enterprises, and lack programs designed specifically for women. Research has shown that women have just a five to ten percent share of accelerator programs.
Importantly, there are also the impacts of what Gagnon referred to as “stereotype threat.” This occurs when women and other underrepresented groups internalize negative stereotypes that ultimately shape their behaviour. For instance, women are considered “discourage borrowers,” meaning that they need finance to support their businesses, but they do not apply because they fear denial. In this case, women have consistently experienced bias informed by stereotypes, internalized it, and thus expect to be continually stereotyped, which prevents them from pursuing financing altogether.
Gagnon shared a series of recommendations to key ecosystem members, first published in See It. Be It.: Women Entrepreneurs Beyond the Stereotypes, before officially launching the See It. Be It. Database.
“We hope that it will be an important resource for policy makers, for educators, for all of the organizations all around the country who work everyday to support women entrepreneurs, and for young, diverse women to see the role models that they can follow,” Gagnon explained.
Women Entrepreneurs Redefining Entrepreneurship
Four women making their mark on Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, technology, the medical sector, and professional development joined us to share their stories in an engaging discussion moderated by Alison Kirkland, CEO of WEOC.
For women entrepreneurs working in male-dominated sectors, they may not see other women in the field to look up to. Emma Todd, Managing Director of MMH Group, worked at a number of major financial institutions before taking the leap to entrepreneurship and cryptocurrency. Todd recalled walking into networking events for individuals working in cryptocurrency during the early days of the technology and being one of only a handful of women, and the only Black person present.
“I never actually had role models. I just went out and did things,” Todd explained.
Anne Martel, co-founder of Element AI, recalled that while her father was an entrepreneur himself, entrepreneurship was not understood as an acceptable path for a woman. Initially, Martel explained, her father was not pleased with her choice to pursue entrepreneurship. Instead he thought she could be a lawyer, a doctor, or pursue another career path that seemed to offer more security and stability.
“I had to battle that for quite some time until I just found myself and decided that I’m also allowed to take a plunge and take risks,” Martel said. As an entrepreneur in the medical sector and in tech, Martel also did not see many successful women entrepreneurs in the field at her start.
Both Todd and Martel found role models and inspiration for their entrepreneurial journeys elsewhere. Todd explained that she was inspired by her grandmother, who supported her children in obtaining university degrees that helped them build impressive careers. Martel found women role models in fiction, as well as in stories about her ancestors. Her great grandmother, whom she had never met, had eight kids and became a widow at a young age. As a single mother, she took to churning butter and flavouring her offerings to sell to others in her village to support herself and her family.
Trulioo co-founder Tanis Jorge also came from an entrepreneurial family. Both her mother and father ran a successful vacuum sales business, so entrepreneurship was always in her mind as a potential career path. When she met the man who would later become her husband in high school, his mother and father were both running a business together as well. Seeing her mother and her then-boyfriend’s mother so central to those businesses proved to be an inspiration for her as a budding entrepreneur.
Jorge began her first business directly after high school with her best friend, a man. While Jorge has always felt supported and valued by her co-founder, she has been asked in business environments on several occasions if she and her partner are in a relationship. She explained that she would always be careful to wear her wedding ring in these environments. Even still, and even after explaining that she was married, some individuals continued to press on and question if Jorge and her co-founder may be having an affair.
For Martel, the questions she fielded from venture capitalists were, “When are you going to have kids?”
Humaira Ahmed, CEO of Locelle, has had similar experiences, and talked about the significant emotional labour involved in trying to dress in ways that may be deemed “acceptable” for a founder and respond to questions that are asked of a woman entrepreneur but not posed to men. She recalled overhearing comments like, “She can’t be the founder. She looks like she works in marketing,” and having to rebuff advancements from men in professional situations despite also being careful to always wear her wedding ring.
“There are a lot of barriers, challenges, and a lack of access to the right networks, the right capital. Sometimes the emotional labour is too much, and you just want to do your thing,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed moved to Canada from Pakistan as a young woman, and like Todd and Martel, she did not have women role models she could look to that may have shown that entrepreneurship was an option to her. The expectation of her was to be a housewife like other women around her in Pakistan, and she was engaged to be married to men that she did not know at the ages of 15 and 17. She knew that to convince her dad that her path was a different one, she had to do so through education, and she successfully worked to get into software engineering at the best school in Pakistan. When she migrated to Canada and continued her education, she was one of just a few women in her university program. Ultimately, she did not complete the program, and transferred to communications instead. As an entrepreneur today, Ahmed has looked to women like Oprah Winfrey and Arlene Dickinson as role models.
Despite the challenges, each entrepreneur agreed that entrepreneurship can be incredibly rewarding. Panelists stressed that women entrepreneurs can benefit significantly from mentorship, and finding the right support systems.
“Don’t let anyone stop you from achieving your potential,” Todd concluded.
Watch the launch and discussion on-demand to hear more about the research and the experiences of these remarkable women entrepreneurs.