OMG! I think I’m a female entrepreneur!

The Centre for Entrepreneurs and Barclays Bank recently launched a report on female entrepreneurs. Called “Shattering Stereotypes”, the aim was to use surveys and empirical data to undermine our perceived ideas (and even prejudices) regarding women as owners of start-up companies. This it did admirably – noting that women entrepreneurs were on average younger than their male counterparts (challenging the “mumpreneur” image). They also paid themselves higher salaries. However, the report also reinforced some “typical” female entrepreneur traits – such as their more cautious attitude to risk and debt and their desire to put sustainability ahead of break-neck growth.

In fact, hearing the report’s findings being presented at the Legatum Institute in Monday evening I sat there somewhat surprised: not least because I concluded that I’m a female entrepreneur. Yes, that’s right: in terms of my attitudes towards risk, debt and sustainability, I possess more-typically female – rather than typically-male – entrepreneurial attitudes and qualities.

Rather than check my gender, so to speak, this had me wondering whether there was something else going on. Was it, perhaps, to do with a type of person (rather than a gender) that – nonetheless – has a statistical bias towards females and particularly female entrepreneurs, although is not an exclusively female trait?

Yes, you guessed it, as the author of The Outside Edge, I’m wondering whether it’s outsiders that are being revealed by the analysis – the notion that, by feeling like an imposter, we’re bound to behave differently: perhaps by being a little more cautious. A little less gung-ho. Feeling more vulnerable (especially to external forces), perhaps we’re keen to sustain our position rather than abandon any caution in favour of a “screw it let’s do it” bravado. We might also be less willing – and certainly less able – to take on debt.

Well-cited research shows that females in business are far more likely to struggle with “imposter syndrome” than men – the notion that (no matter what their qualifications) they cannot shake the thought that they somehow don’t belong. They’re an illegitimate presence in the meeting/pitch/boardroom, they think – a phenomenon first discovered in professional women by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (although later expanded to include anyone discomforted within their peer group despite being there on merit).

Almost by definition, outsiders feel like imposters. We’re inevitably alienated from situations involving group norms, which has a significant impact on our attitudes towards both group endeavours (we tend to be cynical) and risk. In fact, it disables our ability to calculate risk, which – oddly – can lead to wild risk taking, although is more likely – in our careers – to inhibit or suppress our risk appetite. To make us play safe, even as entrepreneurs.

So was the research revealing a propensity for outsiders to develop female entrepreneurial traits or for women entrepreneurs to feel more like outsiders? Or a mix of both – one reinforcing the other perhaps? Certainly, that was my conclusion: making this a groundbreaking report but also one opening the door to further research – perhaps looking at horizontal, rather than purely vertical, societal boundaries to entrepreneurship.

Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering whether there was also a class angle to the propensities found within female entrepreneurs – something I put to Emily Haisley of Barclays Behaviourial and Quantitative Finance (the leader of the research on behalf of Barclay and the Centre). She agreed. While noting that the survey was blind to background, she stated that the entrepreneurs she studied tended to be upper middle class (usually defined in the UK as someone with a private education) and were extraordinarily more gutsy compared to the general population.

The fact that privilege offers us an advantage in business is hardly a revelation. As I’ve said before, privilege offers the lucky few an advantage in everything: sport, music, the arts – even becoming a tramp (just ask Old Etonian George Orwell, who used homelessness to establish his literary credentials). But the fact it offers an advantage when it comes to risk – and risk appetite – is perhaps more revelatory: not least because it somewhat goes against our perceptions of the courageous rags-to-riches self-made millionaire.

But that’s to somewhat dilute the conclusions of this excellent piece of research from Barclays and the Centre for Entrepreneurs. And it’s important to point out that it wasn’t condemning women as scared-e-cats when it came to business: far from it. The women in the survey were willing to take risks, but were more sensitive to risk – and less likely to fall into the over-confidence trap of many (particularly privileged) male entrepreneurs, in which modest success is converted into a preening arrogance or psychopathic megalomania (neither being investor-friendly traits despite appearances).

My guess is that what holds true for female entrepreneurs holds true for outsiders in general – meaning that, far from being the outliers when it comes to entrepreneurial success, we may be the proverbial tortoise racing against the male/insider hare.

Actually, one last point on this if I may – something that differentiated me from all the actual female entrepreneurs in the room. A discussion started regarding what women in business needed above all else. The conclusion: a wife. Female entrepreneurs would just love to have a wife to help them because, in nearly all cases, the husband just didn’t cut the mustard when it came to family duties, household maintenance or emotional support. Indeed, there was a great deal of anecdotal evidence (supported by the survey) that one of the barriers to female entrepreneurship was the need to support the husband’s career. Oh dear – and mea culpa. Indeed, I do have a wife (not pictured) – one that I couldn’t have achieved anything without. One that encouraged me and took on so many of the support duties required of the spouse of a neurotic outsider entrepreneur. Lucky me. And thank you!