• Tips for Entrepreneurs

How to Make It a Win/Win for All: Gender Researcher Ruta Aidis Offers Advice

Dr. Ruta Aidis has more than 15 years of experience teaching, researching, consulting, and publishing in the area of comparative entrepreneurship development, gender, institutions, and public policy. Previously, she was assistant professor in Entrepreneurship and Corporate Governance at University College London, and she has taught at the London School of Economics.

In her research, she focuses on the influence of the institutional environment on entrepreneurship development, and she has conducted extensive research in transition economies that emerged in Eastern Europe. Her work is published widely and includes 14 articles in international academic journals, six academic books, and numerous book chapters.

For the past three years, Aidis has been actively involved with the further development of the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI), an innovative new policy tool that combines the effects of individual and institutional data on entrepreneurship development worldwide.

And that’s the topic we had the opportunity to talk to her about for the October issue of Be Inkandescent magazine.

Scroll down for our Q&A.


Bridging the Gender Divide:
A Q&A with Researcher Ruta Aidis

Be Inkandescent: Let’s start off with the big question: What can individual women entrepreneurs do to be more successful entrepreneurially, especially if their business is in a country not especially favorable to women business owners?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: That’s a good question. Even in countries where the situation may be “less favorable” for women business owners, there are still opportunities for women entrepreneurs. You need to understand your own talents and abilities and then identify where the opportunities lie. There are strengths and weaknesses in every situation.

But this is another instance where I think that knowledge is powerful. So it is important for women starting businesses in these countries to realize that if they are finding it difficult, it probably has nothing to do with their skills, talents, or abilities—it is simply a more challenging environment for women than men. But it is not a reason to give up. In fact it’s an opportunity to be creative in adapting (and succeeding) in spite of the difficulties, and then acting as catalysts for changing the system to pave the way for other female entrepreneurs.

Be Inkandescent: You’ve been researching female entrepreneurship for more than 15 years. What drew you to the topic, and what has frustrated you most about your discoveries?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: I find researching and interviewing female entrepreneurs globally to be very rewarding. Their individual stories are full of inspiration, their innovative approaches are amazing. What frustrates me most? Studies that focus on inherent differences between male and female entrepreneurs. It was fashionable at one point to say that female entrepreneurs were risk-averse—or less risk-taking than men, but I think the perspective taken was the wrong one—the wrong approach.

I think the researchers weren’t taking into account the different “gendered” perceptions of risk. A gender-blind approach does not mean that gendered realities don’t exist, it simply means that the research is not going to take gender into account. That is what was done with the issue of risk. Risk is seen as gender-neutral, but neither women nor men see the world in a gender-neutral way.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give us an example?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: A case in point is the response of women and men to the World Values Survey regarding male versus female business executives. The Gender-Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI) compared the World Values Survey results for 17 countries (including the USA, Australia, Germany, France, Mexico, UK, South Africa, China, Malaysia, Russia, Turkey, Japan, Morocco, Brazil, Egypt, India, and Uganda).

The results show that all 17 countries register a gender difference (i.e. in no country are females considered “as good as” male executives, and greater percentages of male respondents tend to believe that men make better business executives than women. In some countries, the differences were enormous. For example, in Egypt (less than 20%) and India (less than 50%) of both males and females disagreed with the statement that, “Men make better business executives than women.”

When such a strong opinion is expressed in a hypothetical case (where the actual capabilities of the male and female executive are unknown), it is reasonable to expect that attitudes towards women in other positions demanding decision-making and leadership capabilities, such as high-potential female entrepreneurs, would encounter a similar bias.

What impressed me most is the tremendous spirit, courage, and resilience of female entrepreneurs—and the many, many female entrepreneurs who give back, who use their businesses as platforms to make this world a better place for all.

Be Inkandescent: In this newest report, you are the project director and are focused on issues relevant to high-potential female entrepreneurship development and growth. You ID three key issues as ability, circumstances, and choice. Can you explain these issues and tell us why they are relevant to women entrepreneurs around the world?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: In terms of ability, two important categories stand out. At the most fundamental level, access is needed to education and training for women operating in the informal sector. This can help women understand the benefits and process of formalization and pave the way for further business growth. At the same time, it can also help weed out businesses started by women who were pushed into entrepreneurship and would much rather be employed by others.

But ability does not stop there. Segregation patterns in the current educational and labor force limit female entrepreneurship activities, including innovation, to certain sectors. This does not utilize women’s abilities to their fullest, and thus deprives a country of its full entrepreneurial potential.

In terms of circumstances, women need access to critical “tangible” resources for business development and growth. At the most fundamental level, legal parity must be ensured, which includes full rights to property ownership and inheritance, regardless of marital status. Access to capital is another crucial issue for female entrepreneurs.

Be Inkandescent: So the million-dollar question is: When women have access to formal banking structures (their own bank accounts, credit cards, and loans), do they use them?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Exactly. The key is whether there is adequate access to capital and financing for start-up and growth phases. And no less important is access to wireless technologies, and, for mothers, access to high-quality and affordable childcare.

Supporting the development of female entrepreneurship eco-systems forms an important foundation for these activities, as it both concentrates a critical and diverse mass of female entrepreneurs together who can support one another, and it facilitates networking.

Finally, choice addresses the “intangible” resources, such as individual and collective mindsets and attitudes as they pertain to female entrepreneurs. Showcasing and celebrating growing female-owned businesses on all fronts, and especially in the mass media, can have a broad-based and enduring impact. Media images are extremely powerful influencers of household behavior.

Consider: the spread of televised soap operas in Brazil depicting smaller families led to lower fertility rates, especially for women in lower socio-economic groups (World Bank’s Human Development Report, 2012). One can only wonder what the impact would be of a soap opera featuring a number of successful female entrepreneurs with growing, thriving businesses.

Be Inkandescent: Why isn’t it enough to focus solely on the correlation between individual characteristics and entrepreneurial success?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: That overlooks one of the most influential aspects on our lives and life choices: the culture—including beliefs, norms, and values—that we are raised in as well as the surrounding regulatory institutional environment, such as the laws, rules, and regulations.

Incentive structures determine entrepreneurial activity—this notion has been gaining acceptance, especially through cross-country comparisons of regulatory burdens for entrepreneurial activities (such as in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index and the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index (GEDI)).

But by and large, the gendered nature of all societies today and the differing reward and incentive structures for men and women as they relate to entrepreneurship development has been neglected.

Yet they impact men’s and women’s decisions to start and grow their businesses.

So for example, if a woman is worried that she is in some way destroying her social image or her future prospects by becoming an entrepreneur—then either she won’t do it, or in growing her business if she is socially shunned, ridiculed, or criticized, then everyone loses.

Be Inkandescent: Why did you decide to focus the Gender-GEDI specifically on high-potential female entrepreneurs: women business owners who own and operate businesses that are “innovative, market expanding, and export-oriented”?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: For a number of reasons:

  1. To highlight that we need to distinguish between types of entrepreneurship, such as those entrepreneurs who start their businesses out of opportunity or necessity, part-time entrepreneurs, micro-entrepreneurs, etc. That is not to say that there may not be movement between these categories (i.e., they are fuzzy) but in terms of policies, programs, etc.
  2. High-potential female entrepreneurs—which we define as export-oriented, innovative, opportunity-driven—are much more likely to head growth-oriented businesses and to contribute to economic growth through innovation and job creation.
  3. In most countries today, we see a missing middle and missing top for female entrepreneurs—i.e., female-owned businesses that grow in terms of employees and income—while we see many female solo entrepreneurs who tend to stay small—in terms of no employees and low income.
  4. Focusing on high-potential female entrepreneurship can also be seen as a way to filter for a woman’s commitment to her business success.

Be Inkandescent: In your opinion, why aren’t there more “gender-blind” policies? If there were, do you think they’d be sufficient to level the playing field for men and women entrepreneurs?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: I actually think in some cases you need more approaches that are adapted through a gendered lens.

For example, some gendered policies in the USA have been a great boost for female entrepreneurs, especially in terms of federal procurements. The United States has established a government-wide goal for participation by women-owned small businesses of not less than 5 percent of the total value of all prime contract and subcontract awards for each fiscal year.

Great resources include, WEConnect, and the book by WEConnect President Elizabeth Vasquez, called Buying for Impact: How to buy from women and change our world. The book illustrates the need to bridge the gap of local to global markets for female entrepreneurs through targeted government and corporate procurement programs that focus on increasing the number of women-owned business suppliers.

Sometimes policies are needed to break down the existing gender barriers. Moreover, we are often so unaware of the underlying gendered barriers implicitly incorporated in so-called gender-neutral approaches that end up supporting the status quo where women still represent only a small percentage of the decision-makers in the corporate world and in politics.

Be Inkandescent: So has the question shifted from why aren’t women growing their businesses—to how can we make it more attractive for women to grow their businesses?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Absolutely. If women are expected to be responsible for childcare in the US, how can we make this more conducive for business owners?

We can learn from examples such as a new initiative to increase the percentage of female students studying computer science by Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College. Her intervention focused not so much on the content as creating a supportive environment in order to attract and retain female students. Currently at Mudd, about 40 percent of computer science majors are women.

Be Inkandescent: How likely is it that a government—especially in a country with a culture that restricts women’s independence—would be receptive to removing barriers to women entrepreneurs?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Very likely. Because globally, most countries today, regardless of their level of development or size, are concerned about the same thing: How can we increase our competitiveness, sustain economic growth, and improve national prosperity? And the answer lies in removing the obstacles and increasing the opportunities for women to contribute their unique skills, talents, abilities, and perspectives to innovative, growth-oriented entrepreneurship. By not improving conditions so that female entrepreneurship can thrive, countries are harming the future prosperity of all their citizens.

Be Inkandescent: Is it likely that anyone will show up in the near future to lead the call for cultural changes in places where women don’t have a public voice, let alone an equal shot at business success?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Yes, and it is already happening—visionary leaders such as Hillary and Bill Clinton and others are raising the importance of women entrepreneurs worldwide. But real, lasting change can only take place when there is a perspective shift among the grassroots, the broader population.

Grassroots awareness has helped ban the horrific practice of female foot-binding in China. After centuries of foot-binding girls and women for status, the attitudes of the middle class shifted away from footbinding, and it quickly disappeared.

A perspective shift is also under way in the United States, and we can help it gain momentum, which views both men and women as equal players in the home and at work:

  • Mothers can prioritize their businesses, and fathers choose to pick up and drop off their kids from school;
  • When fathers readily know their children’s shoe size and it takes mom a second or two to think about it;
  • Where girls and boys are raised with the same values—that your country needs your unique talents, to reach for the stars and stretch your abilities, to fail often and pave the way towards success. …

Be Inkandescent: How can female entrepreneurs overcome this barrier individually—in the United States, and abroad?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: It’s difficult to make a blanket statement. Each female entrepreneur encounters her own set of unique challenges. In the Gender-GEDI, which ranked 17 countries in terms of high-potential female entrepreneurship development, India ranked 16 out of 17 countries. Yet even under these conditions, there are some very successful female entrepreneurs in India. So we can see even in countries where the barriers seems great, some women are able to excel.

Very important in this process is for every female entrepreneur to know that it is possible to succeed, and that success is within reach if you are willing to keep stretching and growing.

It is very important for every female entrepreneur to get to know herself well … what is important to her, to stick to her priorities, and to surround herself either physically (or virtually) with supportive individuals.

Be Inkandescent: Can you explain why, at first glance, it may appear that family-friendly policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family—such as greater availability of work flexibility and part-time options—are hurting women’s career advances?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Because even in countries where attitudes towards women in leadership positions is more favorable, the enduring attitudes towards women as primarily caretakers can hinder women’s advancement as leaders and decision-makers in spite of seemingly female-friendly employment options.

A recent study indicates the tradeoff between some policies that make it easier for women to combine work and family and for women’s advancement at work. Specifically, countries with greater availability of work flexibility and part-time options often have greater female labor-force participation, but also tend to have fewer women in higher-level (especially management) positions.

Be Inkandescent: Is part of the reason for this that women tend to choose the more flexible employment options and could another part be that employers cannot tell which women are likely to use these options?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Yes, and as a result, employers may be wary of hiring women for high-level positions. Interestingly, in the US, where flexibility and part-time options are virtually non-existent, women’s overall labor-force participation is lower, but the percentage of women in management positions is one of the highest in the world. At first glance, it may seem like family-friendly policies are hurting women’s career advances, yet the real culprits are the social norms and gendered expectations that result in the vast majority of women choosing flexible work options over men.

Social norms may be difficult to quantify, yet understanding their effects on female entrepreneurship development is essential. The real revolution will happen as social norms become more inclusive and supportive of women’s success in business.

Be Inkandescent: Do you have plans to expand the Gender-GEDI either to include additional measures or additional countries? Do you plan to follow-up with the original 17 countries in the Gender-GEDI to see where progress is made—especially where the status quo endures?

Dr. Ruta Aidis: Yes, we will be expanding our country coverage as well as fine-tuning and refining our Index. A big part of improving the Index comes from accessing cross-country comparative data on female entrepreneurship. It’s shocking that this data is not currently being collected.

I am passionate about filling this data gap and am in the process of bringing together a consortium of female entrepreneurship experts to secure independent funding from individuals, philanthropists, and organizations; to collect cross-country comparative data on female entrepreneurs; and to make it available to all researchers on an open-source, web-based platform.

RUTA AIDIS’ 3 TIPS FOR ENTREPRENEURS

1. Do it for the money. And then do good with it—for yourself, your family, the world. One of the reasons that the United States has such excellent entrepreneurship research is due to one entrepreneur’s gift (Ewing Kauffman) that founded the Kauffman Foundation, which is committed to fostering entrepreneurship through education and research.

2. Shine in your uniqueness. No need to be perfect. The world needs your imperfections, too—the whole package that is you.

3. Play more. Keep it light, and keep it in perspective. You will make huge mistakes and that’s okay. You will be successful—some days will be more challenging than others—that’s part of the process and that’s okay!

For more information about Dr. Aidis and her work, Visit www.rutaaidis.com.

For details, and to download documents about the Gender-GEDI reports, visit www.dell.com/dwen.

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