Are men really better at entrepreneurship than women? People generally believe that the answer to this question is “yes,” even if they don’t say so. That’s what three separate academic studies by different authors that all involved the gold standard of scientific experiments – randomized controlled trials - showed. The perception that men make better entrepreneurs than women might account for the stubborn gender gap in entrepreneurship that shows no signs of shrinking, and has important implications for policymakers’ efforts to close it.
In the first study, University of California Santa Barbara sociologist Sarah Thébaud conducted three randomized experiments (two in the United States and one the United Kingdom) of the effect of gender on perceptions of entrepreneurial competence and the quality of new venture ideas. Students were asked to evaluate the competence of the entrepreneurs and the quality of the ideas from descriptions of new ventures and the entrepreneurs founding them. A male or female name was assigned to otherwise identical descriptions. In both the U.S. and U.K. experiments, and for both mundane and innovative ventures, the judges rated the business ideas and competence of male entrepreneurs higher.
In the second study, researchers from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, 521 adults watched two videos of startups pitching at a university-based business plan competition, in which the researchers randomly assigned male or female voices to narrate otherwise identical pitches. In the other experiment, 194 participants watched a single video in which the entrepreneur’s gender was randomly assigned. In both experiments, the judges were significantly more likely to invest in the otherwise identical ventures pitched by men.
In the third study, my colleagues at Case Western Reserve University and the Eindhoven University of Technology and I randomly assigned male or female names and pictures to invention disclosures and descriptions of inventors and asked to 239 technology licensing officers at U.S. universities to assess the degree which they would try to dissuade the inventor from starting a company to exploit the invention. We found that technology licensing officers were significantly more likely to dissuade the inventor from starting a company to exploit an otherwise identical venture by an otherwise identical inventor if the inventor were female rather than male.
Across three sets of researchers, three different aspects of entrepreneurship, and six different experiments, being female was a negative. A female name, picture, or voice reduced the odds of getting an investment, lowered the judges’ assessment of the entrepreneur’s competence and the quality of the venture idea, and increased the likelihood that a key stakeholder would dissuade the entrepreneur from starting a business. Because all of these studies were randomized experiments, the cause of these negative assessments can only be the entrepreneur’s gender.
So why did being female result in more negative assessment? It wasn’t the biases of men towards women. In none of three studies did the assessments differ for male and female judges, but was present for both male and female assessors.
It also probably wasn’t the result of gender stereotypes of an older generation. In the first study, all of the judges were young. In the second and third studies, there was no effect of the judges’ ages on the patterns observed.
All three studies suggest that people form perceptions of what an entrepreneur looks like, and he is male. That (conscious or unconscious) perception leads men and women to judge male entrepreneurs more highly than female entrepreneurs.
The $64,000 question is whether people form those perceptions because most entrepreneurs are men or whether most entrepreneurs are men because people hold those perceptions. Either way, the studies suggest that gender inequity in entrepreneurship will be very difficult for policymakers to eradicate.