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Is there gender equality among Nordic entrepreneurs?

Is there gender equality among Nordic entrepreneurs?

| Text: Fayme Alm, photo Oskar Omne

Both in Sweden and in Finland there are more male than female entrepreneurs. What happens to gender equality when women live with men who are entrepreneurs? Are male and female entrepreneurs motivated by different things?

Two new studies from Sweden and Finland look at these issues.

70% of Swedish companies are started by men. To succeed, many of them depend on the support from their partner – economically and practically. This support is not recognised in entrepreneurial literature nor in policy documents concerning entrepreneurship, according to Matilda Eriksson. She recently presented her PhD thesis “Entrepreneurships’ silent/silenced voices: A narrative study of women living with male entrepreneurs” at Stockholm University.

“In the early 1980s, we learned that growth comes from small and medium-sized enterprises. The Swedish government and global institutions recommended creating a culture that would secure the supply of entrepreneurs. Since then, researchers have believed we live in an entrepreneurial culture, Matilda Eriksson tells the Nordic Labour Journal. 

Ensuring the creation of such a culture led to many policy documents, action plans and strategies which later informed Matilda Eriksson’s work while she was a project leader at Västerås Science Park. 

“I saw first hand the considerable effort being made to promote gender equality while supporting entrepreneurship. Gender equality here meant women running companies, but entrepreneurship and gender equality is a considerably more complex issue than what we like to think. That is what I want to highlight,” she says.

Language can be inclusive and exclusive

As project leader, Matilda Eriksson initiated a cooperation project between the employer and Stockholm University and began looking at gender equality in situations where the man is the entrepreneur and owner of the enterprise, while the woman is the one who makes the enterprise possible. The project grew into a PhD thesis where language takes centre stage since Eriksson believes language is what allows us to create our surroundings.     

“My thesis looks at which voices own the narrative of what constitutes entrepreneurship – what we listen to and which voices are silenced – and which voices have not been interpreted or spoken of what entrepreneurship means,” she says.

Eriksson interviewed 12 women living with an entrepreneur whose company has received public support. She also analysed the policy documents outlining entrepreneurship support and has been able to establish that society sees the entrepreneur as an individual who acts in the public sphere, while the women who were interviewed painted a picture of what goes on in private – namely a collective effort.

“These two perspectives are fairly different and shows how we understand entrepreneurship depending on who we listen to. When we study entrepreneurship from a gender perspective, it is synonymous with studying the woman involved in the enterprise. It is never looked at from the point of view of how a company might influence a partner or a family in a culture that changes in order to promote entrepreneurship and company creation,” she says.

 Joint effort, joint benefits?

Matilda Eriksson’s interviews did not identify a single case of a couple having a written contract to compensate the woman for the responsibility she took on while the man established and developed his enterprise. This despite the fact that the answers she got showed the women had made considerable efforts. 

“Some of the women said that the man and herself, sometimes the entire family, would live off her wages while he set up his company. One said she sacrificed herself for him, so now he should pay her pension. Two said they had invested so much of their time and money that they wanted to get married to secure a legal right to their half of the company,” says Eriksson.

Only three of the 12 women interviewees were partners in their other half’s company.

Socially sustainable?

Matilda Eriksson believes it is important to provide some nuance to the debate about what entrepreneurship should entail and to question the silence around the efforts that women who are in relationships with entrepreneurs put into the business. In her thesis, Eriksson describes this silence as structural discrimination.       

“It is not individual men or men as a group, but rather the entire system that needs looking at, and how the state can intervene. We must also ask ourselves whether it is socially sustainable growth to carry on disregarding women’s efforts rather than shining a light on them and highlighting the problem – not least because the Swedish models for entrepreneurship are export-heavy,” says Matilda Eriksson.

What motivates a future entrepreneur?

In Finland, as in Sweden, more men than women choose to become entrepreneurs and set up their own company. This is despite the fact that these countries – like Denmark, Iceland and Norway – are considered to be the most gender-neutral in the world.

Wilma Westerholm wanted to find out why. The results from her study appeared in the thesis “Entrepreneurship from a gender perspective – what motivates Finnish men and women to pursue entrepreneurship?” which she presented at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki in 2020.

“I have always been interested in gender equality issues and already in my bachelor thesis I had started looking at the main topic of entrepreneurship and business management. Earlier research has shown that the gender gap still exists here. I wanted to delve deeper into the differences between women and men when it comes to entrepreneurship and motivation,” she tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

Wilma Westerholm created a questionnaire focusing on nine aspects of the motivation behind entrepreneurship. She divided them into pull and push factors – the first being what tempts people to become entrepreneurs and the second being what forces women to choose it. 

Push and pull factors

The categories are somewhat simplified compared to the thesis.

When Wilma Westerholm gathered answers from a total of 146 people (70.5% of them women), her hypothesis was that there would be a marked difference between how men and women consider money to be a pull factor, and that the desire to take on challenges would be higher among men than women. 

In terms of money, there was a notable albeit not very large difference between men and women. When it came to the desire to take on new challenges there was no significant difference between the genders, however. 

Her hypothesis for the “desire to go against stereotypes” was that women would have this higher on their list of pull factors. This turned out to be right, but neither women nor men considered this to be an important reason to start a company. 

So, somewhat surprisingly, the answers did not deviate to a great extent from a gender perspective. It is worth noting, however, that the factor “to create balance between work and family life” got considerably more support from women compared to men. 

“Women want the flexibility to be able to decide the length of their working day, as well as when it starts and ends. This result matches what other researchers have found – that for women, the need for flexibility is linked to the chance to control their working day and thus being able to take care of their families, households and themselves as well,” says Wilma Westerholm. 

She is looking forward to the continuation of the research and debate around women entrepreneurs.

“It is important for society as a whole that we have entrepreneurs from both genders,” she says.

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