What about the pipeline for female entrepreneurs in traditional gender-normative cultures?

Annie Hardy
Nov 12, 2018 · 5 min read

I’m far more of a practical philosopher than an ideological one. I love debates and discussions around what *should* be best in the context of how we can get there starting *today*.

With this in mind, my opinion is that the conversation around global entrepreneurship has a rarely discussed gap.

We speak of STEM education and empowering the entrepreneurial mindset of students. We speak of ways that we can get women to the right places, which includes fresh ideas like Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Bus Challenge, a 72-hour cross-country mobile innovation experience focused on collaboratively cultivating digital innovations — with excellent participation from impressive women students.

However, among these approaches, I’ve been thinking lately on how we rarely hear about another key obstacle to encouraging entrepreneurship in women: How can we educate, inform, and empower women to create businesses within — not in spite of — traditional gender-normative cultures?

Acknowledging the importance of family.

Among a bevy of amazing entrepreneurs and investors, I spoke with female students last week at INCmty in Monterrey, Mexico. It was a delightful interaction with these intelligent, creative, intellectually curious women as we headed to a session about innovation.

And as I introduced myself as an entrepreneur and industry veteran who is also a mom of 3, their eyes widened as they said, “we don’t really have examples of that here.”

It’s important to note there are indeed many successful female entrepreneurs in Mexico, one notable example being Blanca Treviño of Softtek, who is a globally-recognized innovator and entrepreneur. However, it seems that the visibility of these successful entrepreneurs isn’t prevalent enough to change the obstacle that prevents women from seeing themselves as business owners.

This perspective has been validated by research which “shows that women around the world are less likely to consider entrepreneurship as a career path, largely because they don’t see other women entrepreneurs as role models.”

And women in the industry agree: “In women, there is a lot of potential; But women have a problem: we are the ones who limit ourselves. Entrepreneurship…is the best education. There is no company in the world that will teach you what you generate yourself through entrepreneurship.” (translated, María Teresa Arnal, Directora de Google México)

“In women, there is a lot of potential; But women have a problem: we are the ones who limit ourselves.”

And a gender-normative cultural mindset extends beyond entrepreneurship into the general perspective on Mexican working mothers.

Even with Mexican families wanting the best for their daughters, encouraging them to pursue higher education and succeed in their careers, once those women become mothers, the cultural expectations of the family as a woman’s priority can persist. This sentiment is well encapsulated by Carmen Castro, a working mother in Mexico.

“I was raised by a family with strong female leadership and was taught to be independent, go to college and pursue a professional career. That was the best legacy they could leave me for life. But once I got married and had a baby, things drastically changed. I started to get questioned about my decision to keep working vs. being a “full-time” mom. It seems we are giving the wrong message to girls, who are being raised to be independent and career-driven, but just until they become moms. That’s when they will start getting judged for choosing their career over their family.” (The Stigma of Being a Working Mom in Mexico)

“It seems we are giving the wrong message to girls, who are being raised to be independent and career-driven, but just until they become moms. That’s when they will start getting judged for choosing their career over their family.”

So encouraging global entrepreneurship in some cultures is not just about closing the funding gap. It’s not just STEM education. It’s also an acknowledgment of the importance of traditional family values and finding ways to encourage women to create businesses within a cultural norm that expects them to be devoted mothers.

Changing a gender normative cultural mindset isn’t going to happen overnight, and fostering innovation in 51% of our population can’t wait.

Changing a gender normative cultural mindset isn’t going to happen overnight, and fostering and sustaining innovation in 51% of our population can’t wait.

Working Women in Mexico today.

Only 2.4% of entrepreneurs in Mexico are women. And of those female entrepreneurs, 26% have to work fewer than 35 hours a week because of their domestic tasks, which for women averages 20 hours a week, compared to men averaging 12 hours a week.

Although I don’t want to represent a culture with blanket statements, the Mexican women I personally know are ambitious, resilient, creative, intelligent, ambitious, and fierce, all of which are crucial characteristics of entrepreneurs.

And to be clear, I’d be remiss to portray mothers as somehow unimportant in Mexico: They are cherished. The Mexican culture holds women in high regard relative to their roles in building and sustaining a healthy family culture. Having a healthy family culture is a noble goal, and I see female college graduates value their role of pouring into their family and their children.

The downside of motherhood relative to entrepreneurship is when women set themselves and their interests aside in favor of supporting their family.

“Gender socialization within (Mexican) culture encourages women to be supportive of their children and husbands, and to silently sacrifice themselves in order to do so.” (Las mujeres como cuidadoras principales en México: retos para su bienestar, Ann M DiGirolamo, MPH, PhDI; V Nelly Salgado de Snyder, PhDII)

“Gender socialization within (Mexican) culture encourages women to be supportive of their children and husbands, and to silently sacrifice themselves in order to do so.”

How do we cultivate female entrepreneurs in gender-normative cultures?

Myriad global programs are pouring resources and support into fostering equality in business today, and younger generations have a higher propensity to support balanced family responsibility and values between spouses or partners.

The United Nation’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change is one global entity that recognizes the importance of addressing the social factors that are obstacles to women being more equally engaged in entrepreneurship and innovation. They’re doing important work that addresses both immediate opportunities and long-term gains.

However, I wonder if most approaches to female-focused and inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation investments leave a gap in their approach; Are they disregarding or belittling some of the global gender-normative family cultures we see today around the globe? I believe fostering innovation and entrepreneurship could be more successful if we acknowledge and respect the cultural norms that act as barriers to women giving 100% commitment to entrepreneurial endeavors.

We don’t have to agree with gender norms. And we can work towards changing them through education and empowerment. But to make meaningful changes, do we need to accept how family structures operate today within gender-normative cultures?

How can we help encourage women to build businesses if they’re in traditional cultures that don’t seem to be shifting any time soon? Do we need culture change before entrepreneurship will thrive? Should entrepreneurship be framed as a more flexible working option for working parents who are devoted to their families?

Do you believe we need to address this topic head-on in these cultures, that we’re doing a good job already, or do you feel like there is another solution?

I encourage your thoughts and feedback on this topic.

Annie Hardy

Written by

Founder of zeet insights, an Austin-based market & design research firm; design thinker, diversity advocate, tech geek, proud mom.

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