A Category, such as ‘women entrepreneurs’, inadvertently singles women out as ‘the other’ to the male entrepreneur norm. This singling-out problem is endemic in identity politics more generally. Those who wish to study and speak of the specific and unique issues that women entrepreneurs (or a subset of them) can experience, face difficulties involving essentialising women and positioning them as deficient. Indeed, the literature has been accused of doing just this. This can be overcome through careful wording, definition and nuance, but these practices are rarely replicated in media and popular accounts.
As a researcher of a specific group of women entrepreneurs, those who have started businesses as a way to combine motherhood and work, I have found it especially difficult to find the language to label and identify this group without undermining their achievements and seriousness. This is because powerful discourses situate motherhood and business in opposite realms and separate spheres. The qualities thought to be necessary to each are in diametric opposition to one another, by implication; ‘soft and fluffy’ motherhood and ‘hard-nosed’ business don’t mix. Do the business women share this struggle to find the language to identify themselves and their businesses? Do they feel the need for a unique label and separate group identity?
This article draws upon a debate raging amongst some business women about the newly official term ‘mumpreneur’. The account that follows draws upon a thematic analysis of the comments of posts to four business-owner-women-website debates on the subject, as well as interviews carried out with women business owners. Arguably, the term ‘mumpreneur’ takes the masculinism out of ‘entrepreneur’, but there is much confusion over what it means and whether it is emancipatory or damaging for those to whom it is applied (and women entrepreneurs more generally). The popularity of the term in the media and amongst a growing number of women who identify with (and use) this label, as well as its official recognition in the dictionary makes it increasingly difficult to ignore.
It is worth noting that all of the business-women contributors to these debates had feminist arguments at their core. Committed to the same feminist cause, they had varying understandings of how to achieve greater equality for women business owners. There were those who argued that defining women’s work through a feminine-gendered label or identity (‘mother’) reproduces gendered stereotypes and risks ghettoising women’s business. They were likely to reason that we wouldn’t ever call a male business owner a ‘dadpreneur’ and accuse such discursive practice of ‘sexism’.
Such objections arise in the spirit of liberal feminism that disregards the reality that in family and work matters, women and men do not operate on a level playing field; inadvertently perhaps, these positions are likely to represent anything associated with women, womanhood and femininity as lacking. Especially unappealing to these critics is the ‘mother’ identity which, they fear, has implications of ‘cosiness’, ‘fluffiness’, ‘lack of seriousness, lack of ambition, indeed, everything that is ‘other’ to the discursive formulation of the ‘entrepreneur’ (Jones 2011, Ahl 2004).
In addition, many contributors feared that the term suggested a business sector that included parenting, children’s and women’s products and services and excluded (again implied) ‘more serious’ (men’s?) sectors. Indeed, many thought too that the term was insulting or patronising to women who had much more serious business intentions than the term implied. There was questioning too about why mothers needed special attention and recognition and discussion about the dangers of the widespread use of a term that few understood. The result of such objections is that they render feminine labels and attributes unspoken and unspeakable discourses, they side step the issue of unequal power relations between the sexes, and leave women with the impossible task of behaving and performing like men from a position of disadvantage.
On the other hand, there were those who heralded the term and all it implied as a form of resistance to narratives, and thus prejudices, in society that construct entrepreneurship as masculine. Motherhood and business are terms rarely seen as complimentary to one another and some ‘mumpreneurs’ seek to challenge this. Those who embrace the term ‘mumpreneur’ as an act of resistance have more in common with radical feminists who focus on unequal power relations in societies and make very clear that rather than expect women to behave more like men, until wide-scale societal change makes gender insignificant, we need to place more value upon femininity and the caring work that women do.
Contributors in favour of the ‘mumpreneur’ term often spoke of “loving” it and used words such as “empowering”, “emancipating”, “inspiring”. Rather than inadvertently comply with the fiction of separate spheres, where women are able to behave like men because it is assumed that the worlds of commerce and the family are entirely independent of each other; the tenet of many of the contributions was that we should make some noise to highlight the fact that; whilst it may be easier for men to behave as if these life domains are separate, predominant gender relations make it difficult for many women to do so, especially after the birth of children.
Many contributors also highlighted the strength to be gained from identifying a group to which you belong. The term served as both an identity-forming and group-constituting lever, which gave those who identified with the term feelings of strength, common goal, pride and celebration. The term has also engendered a networking platform, where mumpreneur business networking forums have become commonplace and popular. The visibility of this as a movement is indicated by the recent OBE (January 2012) awarded to Jane Hopkins, founder (in 2007) of the ‘mum’s in business’ networking forum, Mumsclub. The existence of the term has also enabled many mumpreneur businesses to use it as marketing and publicity leverage.
The problem with the approach of celebrating the “mother” in entrepreneurship is that without careful nuance and definition (and this doesn’t come across in mass media – or the Collins English Dictionary), because there is so much violent discourse stacked against the “Mother’ label, this term risks reproducing, rather than challenging, negative gendered stereotypes. Motherhood is the identity that dare not speak its name in the business world – can Mumpreneurs achieve change?
Labels and identities
Some who dislike the term ask why motherhood should be involved as a marker of entrepreneurial identity and why a term is needed. What is so special about ‘mumpreneurs’? In gender and entrepreneurship research it is useful to distinguish between different types of entrepreneur. This avoids essentialising all entrepreneurs as the same and enables understandings to develop about the unique circumstances and issues that specific groups face. Policy interventions can follow. It is impossible to do this without finding and carefully defining suitable labels.
My solution to date has been to identify a version of entrepreneurship that I label ‘life-stage entrepreneurship’ (those for whom the life-stage transition into parenthood has acted (either fairly immediately or in the longer term) as a spur to starting up a new business). Within this group, I identify a further two sub-categories; ‘life-stage businesses’ (that operate around the spatio-temporal routines of family life) and finally ‘mumpreneur businesses’ that position themselves as businesses created by, run by and often run for the benefit of ‘mums’. Imagined around the identities and needs of mothers, these businesses, though not necessarily exclusively run by mothers or even women, creatively and often profitably use the term ‘mumpreneur’ to their advantage.
This careful nuance is important. Not all life-stage businesses are mumpreneur businesses. This recognises diversity in women’s (and men’s) businesses rather than grouping all women together and essentialising the nature of “women entrepreneurs”. It acknowledges that for many business owners, the worlds of home and commerce are inseparable and can even creatively benefit one another. Women who aim to prioritize their roles as mothers, but creatively grow successful businesses within the parameters, restrictions and opportunities that this role-priority brings are growing successful businesses.
Their creativity extends to the casting and recasting of the gendered identities of motherhood, business-ownership and entrepreneurship.
Whilst many dislike the term, those in support seem to concur that until gender is insignificant in entrepreneurship, the ‘mumpreneur’ label and identity sets up a challenge to (the violence of) masculinist entrepreneur discourses and models of how to run a business. The arguments summarized above are in essence about whether we should pretend, or not pretend, that business/work/employment are separable from and unhindered by, the rest of life, especially, still, for women? Feminists have long critiqued the fiction of separate spheres. Can the ‘Mumpreneur’ and her/his label, become an effective agent/weapon in this critique?
Carol Ekinsmyth, University of Portsmouth