New choices for women

Dorothy Perrin Moore

Entrepreneurship "is a socialization process that leads women to be different colors in a single hour."

"While the real competitor is oneself -- the game is the challenge and it requires inventing one's own systems, environments, teams and agenda."

-- Mary Walshok, as cited in "Careerpreneurs: Lessons From Leading Women Entrepreneurs"

Women business owners have become so numerous they can no longer be ignored. Today, worldwide, one woman in 11 is an entrepreneur, women-owned firms comprise more than one-third of all entrepreneurial activity, and their numbers are growing.

It is part of the broad pattern of change that includes among other things the restructuring of organizational environments in the wake of competitive globalization and the increasing numbers of potential (I see an opportunity), emergent (we just started this business), neophyte (been going for a year now) and nascent (just at the point where we can start growing).

Who these female entrepreneurs are and why they start businesses depends on the local culture, educational opportunities and social perceptions of what is appropriate for women. The reasons are diverse, ranging from the absence of other choices in some low- and middle-income countries, reported by half of the entrepreneurs, perhaps because of reduced access to labor markets and lower levels of education, to the series of factors that have been observed in middle- and high-income nations where women have a higher level of education, greater access to resources and are raised with a strong sense of independence and a high degree of self-confidence.

Researchers also note that while the increase in the numbers of entrepreneurial women varies across nations, growth is higher in middle-income than in high-income countries. The difference can be attributed to the fact that in areas of the world where educational levels are lower, women's entrepreneurial activity can be driven by necessity. In the high-income countries, by contrast, opportunity and balance are major motivational forces.

According to the most recent Global Economic Monitor Report on Women and Entrepreneurship, the United States is one of a 22-country cluster of nations whose economies can be characterized as innovative and high income. Women starting a business in any of the countries in the innovation group have the advantages of a base of continuing research and development, a deep and widely available pool of knowledge and an expanding service sector. Collectively, these provide a great potential for innovative entrepreneurial opportunity.

Among the reasons women in the middle- and high-income nations start businesses are the changes in the economic and corporate environments: new definitions of success, the search for balance, growing opportunities and the waves of rapid technological, social and economic change that require individuals to customize their careers.

Differences among opportunities for women vary from country to country for a variety of reasons: socialization ("you can be anything you want" versus "women don't do things like that"), education ("equal opportunity for all" versus "girls should not go to school"), educational attainment (are the numbers of women who major in science, technology, engineering, math and business fields large or small?), push and pull economic factors and traditional attitudes. For no matter how individually talented, capable and motivated she is, the choices a woman makes are inevitably set within circumstances that range from restrictive to supportive. Her success is dependent on whether that environment enabled her to gain the right educational and business experience and the ability to take advantage of the opportunity.

The highest ratios of women entrepreneurs appear in Western Europe, in Belgium and Switzerland, and in the United States. Right now, the U.S. ratio is heavily influenced by the current bleak corporate picture. Two groups of women entrepreneurs recently have emerged in strength. The first predominantly consists of midcareer women with corporate experience, ambition and diminished opportunities to move up. The other, drawn from the more than 72 percent of mothers who participate in the U.S. work force, for whom moving from a full-time job to a part-time single employee business is based on new technology. It can be a financially sound choice (day care is expensive), make it easier to keep family commitments and provide flexibility for a customized career with balance potential.

Think the changes have been coming fast? Uncomfortable with them or know someone who is?

Get ready. Over the next decade, two movements will combine to transform the economic landscape even more. Small businesses will be formed and run by a new and more diverse group of entrepreneurs. The largest groups will consist of women heavily influenced by the desire to escape the limitations of the glass and steel ceilings in the private sector and immigrant entrepreneurs. This shift will create new business opportunities for many and change the U.S. and global economies.

Dorothy Perrin Moore, Ph.D., is professor emerita of business and entrepreneurship at The Citadel.

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