Women Entrepreneurs: a Critical Review of the Literature

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Increasing numbers of women are becoming leaders of their own businesses, and many are struggling to achieve success. A growing body of theory and research is exploring how different women come to business ownership, their unique leadership challenges and strategies for success, their personal change and the processes of leadership development they experience. This paper reviews literature addressing women business owners from the general perspective of understanding their leadership. Within this frame, existing studies of women business owners are classified and examined according to four themes that appear to be most prominent. These four themes are (1) Women business owners’ characteristics and development; (2) Women’s motives for starting and leading a business; (3) Women’s leadership styles and management strategies in small business; and (4) Barriers and conflicts encountered by women business owners.

The article argues that further study and critical analysis is required, particularly examining relationships between changing economic contexts and cultural meanings of work, and women’s unique ways of crafting entrepreneurial leadership. Questions are suggested for future research continuing the inquiry into women’s leadership as small business owners.

Women Leaders in Small Business:

A Critical Review of Existing Literature and Questions for Future Inquiry

Women’s leadership in contexts of small business ownership [1] can be argued to present different models of leadership style, values, and challenges than those developed by women in organizational leadership roles. Recent studies of women in business ownership (i.e. Business Development Bank of Canada, 1999; Industry Canada, 1999) suggest that these women business owner-leaders exercise a large degree of control over the vision and purpose of the enterprise, and often deliberately craft working environments and cultures that support their personal values and preferences. They can cultivate their own working relationships with greater freedom. They can seek as much challenge and take as much risk as they can personally manage. For some women, these freedoms come at a high cost of fears and insecurities, unpredictable workload and isolation (Canadian Advisory Council, 1991). In sum, small business ownership creates leadership issues for women that are different in kind than those shared by their sisters in senior management positions located in corporate or government settings.

In the 1990’s across North America, women increasingly have been entering ventures in self-employment. In the USA, by 1992 women already owned 27 percent of small businesses (National Women Business Owners (NFWBO), 1992). In Canada, this figure in 1996 was 40 percent (Industry Canada, 1999). Statistics collected in 1997-98 found that women were starting businesses in North America at two to five times the rate of men (National Foundation, 1999; Industry Canada, 1999) and that increasing numbers of these were home-based. There is also evidence of a trend of women in senior management leaving or wanting to leave their corporate positions to try business ownership (Catalyst, 1998; Sharp and Sharp, 1999). In the U.S. from 1987-99, women’s businesses increased 103%, their sales grew 436% and their employee ranks swelled 320% (NFWBO, 1999a). Various estimates claim that by the year 2000, almost 50 percent of all new businesses in North America will have been started by women (Business Development Bank, 1999; Industry Canada, 1999; NFWBO, 1999a). World-wide, similar patterns are becoming evident. Women-owned businesses are increasing to comprise one-quarter to one-third of businesses in the formal economies of Brazil, Equador, Mexico, Australia, Ireland, Italy, England, Germany, France, and certain African countries, and women business owners of these countries share similar concerns, according to surveys conducted 1997-98 at international conferences by the National...
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