Lifting the barriers to women entrepreneurship

Whether setting up a new business, negotiating a pay rise or taking on more responsibility in the workplace, women can be supported in reaching leadership positions. Sciences Po's new Women in Business Chair aims to improve understanding of the obstacles women face and spearhead action to remove them. Interview with Anne Boring, researcher in charge of the Chair. Anne’s work focuses on the analysis of gender inequalities in the professional world.

Anne Boring, the idea for this chair began with an observation: that fewer female students at Sciences Po are involved in creating start-ups than their male counterparts...

Yes, the idea was sparked three years ago when I was doing research for PRESAGE, Sciences Po's Gender Research and Academic Programme. Maxime Marzin, Director of the Sciences Po Business Incubator, told me about a phenomenon she had observed: that female students at Sciences Po are less involved in the creation of start-ups than their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that 50% of the two to three hundred students attending the introductory course in entrepreneurship each year are women, whose results are good and on par with those of the men. This phenomenon can also be observed outside of Sciences Po. For example, only 26% of the beneficiaries of National Student Entrepreneur Status (figures 2015-2016) are women. Our interest in this anomaly led us to travel to Stanford, USA, to study best practices in Silicon Valley. We returned to Sciences Po with the idea of creating a Chair, whose aim would be to lift the barriers to the development of women's entrepreneurial and professional ambitions.

Have you identified any of the specific barriers that hold women back from starting up a business? 

Along with Alessandra Cocito, who founded a start-up and teaches at the Centre for Entrepreneurship, I’ve been interviewing female Sciences Po students to find out what prevents them from taking the plunge. The main obstacles that we’ve identified are a lack of self-confidence, an absence of belief in their own credibility, difficulty managing risks, less appetite for competition, scarcity of female role models, qualms about public speaking, and a sense of isolation when operating in an environment where women are very much the minority. More broadly speaking, these are also the barriers to women taking up leadership positions within companies.

How will the Chair be linked to teaching at Sciences Po?  

The Chair is intended to work with the different Sciences Po entities: the Undergraduate College; the various Masters programmes; PRESAGE and the Careers Service. In particular, the Chair is intended to develop a better understanding of which competencies female students need to develop to prepare female students for the obstacles they are likely to come up against. Research shows that women tend not to develop as many of the core skills in the workplace as men, including some soft skills. To give an example that might seem a bit caricatured but is described in the research, let’s consider the so-called ‘good female student’. During her studies she’ll keep a relatively low profile, she won’t speak up a lot in class and is unlikely to advertise or promote her abilities. Social norms and conventions often value modesty among women. However, once women enter the job market, making their skills and competencies known becomes essential to progressing in their careers. Women find themselves at a disadvantage to men who are more used to speaking up, making their voices heard, and putting themselves forward. 

How will your work have an impact?

Our work will have an impact through research, training, and improved dissemination of good practices. On the research side, the objective is to forge collaborations with researchers in the areas of economics, sociology and psychology, to create new teaching strategies and workshops designed to empower women. The Chair will also inform the wider public about effective ways of fostering entrepreneurship and promoting women's leadership. It is this combination that makes the programme particularly innovative: offering new teaching based upon the research and becoming a resource for all institutions wishing to establish teaching programmes. Our effectiveness in this area will have been proven by a scientific approach.

You have previously said that institutions are often misguided in their attempts to facilitate women’s access to positions of responsibility and that the effect of some initiatives is actually counterproductive.

Companies understand that it is in their interest to have more women in positions of responsibility. Their intentions are generally well-meaning and some companies go as far as establishing specific initiatives. However,  the research shows that some of these initiatives can be counterproductive; they may even contribute to strained working relations between women and men, and in some cases reduce promotion opportunities for women. Furthermore, there is a notable lack of communication between researchers studying these issues and the companies themselves. This Chair is also intended to improve the information companies receive about initiatives whose impact has been evaluated scientifically.

Does the Chair aim to bring about lasting changes in attitudes?

As an economist, I don’t necessarily seek to change attitudes, but I do want to inform decision-making, for example by improving understanding of how women's career choices are shaped. Research shows that women tend to choose studies that lead to careers that are less well-paid and have inferior career development prospects. These choices are largely influenced by gender stereotypes and a lack of information. If women better understood how these stereotypes influence their choices, and if they were better informed about the consequences of their choices, they might make career decisions that are better aligned with their true ambitions. My objective is the following: to help women achieve their own individual ambitions.
 
The Women in Business Chair was created at the initiative of the Sciences Po Centre for Entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Sciences Po Interdisciplinary Laboratory for the Evaluation of Public Policies (LIEPP) and the Gender Research and Academic Programme (PRESAGE). It is supported by the CHANEL Foundation and Goldman Sachs.

Anne Boring is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam and associate researcher at LIEPP and PRESAGE. Her work has a particular focus on econometric analyses of gender inequalities in higher education and the world of work.

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