“There are no female serial entrepreneurs in Great Britain...Women are more nest-builders. Look at Anita Roddick - she was a fantastic businesswoman. She achieved a lot in her life, but she never wanted to sell her business and start a new one. Guys will sell up and start a new business and become serial entrepreneurs. Women, even when they become successful, want to keep the business and focus on it. Which is fantastic, it's not a criticism. I'm not saying entrepreneurs are great. I'm just saying we're different and I think it takes a bit of arrogance and a bit of something that men have got more than women.”
Duncan Bannatyne, interviewed in The Guardian, 4th June 2009
My 2011 ISBE conference paper discusses fictive constructions of the entrepreneur and HE student within UK HE entrepreneurship education policy and how these underpin the rationale for entrepreneurship education; positioning certain students as deficient when compared to the template of the 'fictive entrepreneur' as discursively constructed in policy. I argue that fictive subjects are created and embedded through and within entrepreneurship discourses and the exploration of this has much to tell us about how entrepreneurship and gender are framed in public discourse and their intended and unintended consequences.
In this article I suggest that the ways in which popular culture presents entrepreneurship as a masculinised, valorous activity has the potential to create the conditions that it names; shaping social reality, informing power relations and influencing policy. Dominant discourses are those that indicate institutionalised and taken-for-granted ways of thinking, being socially accepted and having precedence over other discourses through uncritical reproduction and repetition. My research draws on discourse analysis and challenges some of the standardised ways of thinking that are reproduced by the dominant discourses of entrepreneurship, which are so firmly embedded in UK policy and popular culture as to seem unquestionable. Researchers such as Helene Ahl have shown that the dominant discourses of entrepreneurship have come from masculinised foundations, which symbolically link essentialist notions of masculinity to entrepreneurship and this is reflected in the language used to describe entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship throughout society.
An example of these pervasive and uncritical discursive constructions of men, women and entrepreneurship is highlighted by the opening words of Duncan Bannatyne. Bannatyne makes a distinction between women as a homogeneous group and entrepreneurs as a homogeneous group when he says 'I'm not saying entrepreneurs are great', i.e. just because they are different from women they're not necessarily great. Bannatyne's comments position women as all the same, with the same motivations and responses to business ownership. In this way women are positioned as different from the 'true' entrepreneurs who are serial entrepreneurs and who are exclusively male. Because female serial entrepreneurs are not visible they are assumed not to exist and because they are assumed not to exist policy makers, researchers and journalists will not seek them out as this would potentially be a waste of time. This potentially leads to the ongoing high visibility of male entrepreneurs presented as 'real' entrepreneurs because they are the easy ones to find and because we know they exist.
This is all the more amazing because highly visible entrepreneurs (who are mostly male) are drawn upon as experts in the field and so their pronouncements are listened to and reproduced as 'fact', when actually they are based on taken-for-granted notions about essential differences between men and women as homogeneous and stable groups that have emerged from a masculinised discursive space which sets up a discursive divide between women and entrepreneurs and which frames entrepreneurship as a form of masculinist. I would argue that such pronouncements from experts in the field actually shape the field and the way that entrepreneurship is talked about through their visibility and the importance placed on their opinions and activities as apparently highly successful and celebrated entrepreneurs.
If women are commonly positioned as business owners, not entrepreneurs – is this based on a need to position entrepreneurship as high-status (and therefore symbolically linked to masculinity?). After all, research suggests that once professions are seen as feminised they become less attractive to men and therefore lose their status. For entrepreneurship to lose its status is to lose the potential for the economic growth and wealth and job creation in economies where employment is becoming increasingly scarce and politically damaging. These uncritically reproduced notions do seem to have an effect, for example, women that I worked with as a business adviser would call themselves business owners not entrepreneurs, as if they were somehow excluded from using this term because they did not fit the socially sanctioned template of a true entrepreneur. Indeed, this suggests that the term entrepreneur itself may be problematic as it is not a neutral word; being symbolically linked to certain types of fictive constructions of certain groups who behave in certain ways.
I would argue that these discursively produced fictive constructions in popular culture are also uncritically drawn upon and enacted through entrepreneurship policy. Since the Bolton report of the 1970s, which argued that the status of the businessman (sic) was at its lowest point, there have been concerted efforts by successive UK governments to encourage business start-up. From the concept of small business ownership we moved towards the idea of enterprise and entrepreneurship – as suggested in the 1980s by the need to develop and grow an enterprise culture to deal with economic downturn and unemployment. In order to encourage people to be enterprising, governments need to show who the high status, successful entrepreneurs are that they should emulate and how they can change their behaviours to become more like them. Policy, particularly HE entrepreneurship education policy, concentrates on the non-negotiable imperative of developing an 'entrepreneurial mindset' in students. Just as in popular culture, this supposes that entrepreneurs are the same and all have the same mindset.
Ironically, policies which aim to support women's entrepreneurship often suggest they are lacking in the qualities of the true entrepreneur, that they are flawed, risk averse, lack confidence and lack the special abilities needed to become a true entrepreneur. If we follow this line of thought through, then these policies are suggesting that men are 'naturally' more confident and have developed the required abilities independently, with no need of government intervention (unless of course they are men from an ethnic minority). Indeed in entrepreneurship policy, women are generally positioned as white and black and ethnic minorities are generally positioned as men (which has the effect of rendering women from ethnic minorities invisible – another potentially damaging effect of policy). This is symbolically damaging for women, as it reproduces notions around their 'natural' unsuitability for entrepreneurship and tries to change this lack of fit between the fictively constructed masculinised entrepreneurial template and the fictive, homogeneous 'woman'.
So, how can we begin to address some of these issues? Perhaps by broadening the criteria for success; not positioning life style businesses, self-employment and social enterprise as lesser modes of entrepreneurship and broadening the suggested templates and motivations for entrepreneurship. It has been argued that entrepreneurship is not special and that, likewise, entrepreneurs are not special. Indeed that is the premise of the HE entrepreneurship education curriculum. If certain groups are 'natural' entrepreneurs they would pursue it anyway and those who aren't natural entrepreneurial could not possibly benefit from exposure to entrepreneurship education. If the process of setting up a business can be learnt, then the idea of the special, heroic, entrepreneurial, white male is dissipated and entrepreneurship becomes an option for everyone - rather than the special few.
The ability of language to shape perceptions of social reality and to position certain groups in certain ways arguably has implications for the way that entrepreneurship is currently framed in our society and the suggested criteria for success as an entrepreneur which underpins policy, entrepreneurship education and popular culture. Perhaps we should consider scrapping the term entrepreneur altogether as it is not a neutral term but symbolically 'loaded' and has the potential to alienate the very people that entrepreneurship policy and public funding seeks to support.
Dr Sally Jones, Teaching Fellow in Enterprise, Leeds Enterprise Centre, University of Leeds Business School