This research seeks to understand whether educational intervention can help women succeed in technology entrepreneurship, a career field where women are underrepresented but where economic opportunity is high. The study focuses on an experiential learning model of entrepreneurial education, EWITS, specifically designed to expose women to the technology commercialization process, develop the skills to form a technology startup, and inspire and empower them to pursue leadership roles in technology-based companies. Experiences of program participants were documented and analyzed to understand what effect this model of education has on entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions, as well as to learn how women attempt to overcome barriers to entry into technology entrepreneurship. Using a mixed-methods case study design, the data were analyzed through a theoretical lens of ambient belonging and gender bias. The resulting case study describes the experiences of the program participants, highlights the factors that led them to the field of technology entrepreneurship, and examines how they have responded to barriers they experienced along the way.
Background and Rationale for the Study
The participation of women in the fields of technology, entrepreneurship, technology licensing, and patenting is historically low. At the time of this writing, Harvard Business School Working Paper 17-046, Diversity in Innovation (Gompers and Wang, 2017) is reporting that fewer than 10% of tech startups are owned by women, and less than 6% of venture backed technology startups are owned by women. While women represent 39% of all small business owners, they are more highly represented in small “lifestyle” businesses and are underrepresented in both technology start-ups, and venture capital backed firms (Gilpin, 2015, Brush et al., 2014, Hill, 2016). Women are underrepresented in many STEM-related fields, both in academia and in the workforce. While there have been some gains in female participation in science and math, the number of women entering technology and engineering fields remains extremely low.
Not including more women in the technology and entrepreneurial workforce affects many societal issues including gender pay equality, the effectiveness of technological innovation, the overall profitability of startup ventures, and the ability to continue to grow the economy. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), in 2014, women working full-time in the United States earned only 79% of salaries compared to men for the same position (AAUW, 2016). Women are often more highly concentrated in lower-paying career fields and underrepresented in higher-paying careers such as technology and entrepreneurship. Just as we see in the general workforce, women are more highly represented in low-paying entrepreneurial ventures and under-represented in higher-paying entrepreneurial business enterprises.
Having more diverse leadership and development teams is good for our society. Research shows that companies with diverse leadership teams are more successful, develop better products, and earn higher revenues (Dawson et.al., 2014). Venture-backed companies with leadership teams that include women on average earn 12% more revenue than male-led companies. Successful technology startups have twice as many women in senior positions as do unsuccessful companies (Brush et al., 2014, Canning et al., 2012). By increasing the number of women entering technology entrepreneurship we can therefore potentially increase the wage-earning potential of females as well as increase the economic success of technology startups in our economy.
Two sociological theories guide the theoretical perspective of this research. The first is the theory of gender bias which applies to the external influences and inherent biases in the gendered fields of technology and entrepreneurship that act as barriers to an individual’s entry and later success. The second is the theory of ambient belonging which addresses an individual’s internal motivation and intentions about entering a career or field of study. Gender bias may also affect ambient belonging in that knowledge of gender biases may be the catalyst for the development of cultural stereotypes or serve as a deterrent to anyone who feels these biases will create an unfair disadvantage for their success.
Gender bias: This is a bias that affects the way we perceive certain things, persons, or groups of people based on their gender (Rhode, 2017). Feminist theory proposes that the fields of technology and entrepreneurship have become gendered fields (Calás and Smircich, 2009). The culture has aligned with masculine societal norms in a way that creates a gender bias. This bias may cause women to appear less successful than men because their way of undertaking technology entrepreneurship may be different from the norm (Ahl, 2006; Bruni, 2004; Hughes, 2012). Some studies show that women value a return on social investment and thus focus on creating more sustainable long-term growth businesses (Calás and Smircich, 2009, Fink and Haisley, 2015). This approach to conducting entrepreneurship differs from the traditional high economic growth models of entrepreneurship. Because traditional standards of success value strong economic growth models, a bias may exist against entrepreneurs who more highly value returns on social investment. Since women, on average, value returns on social investment more highly, they are more adversely affected by this bias.
Ambient belonging: This is a term developed by Sapna Cheryan (Cheryan et al., 2009) to describe the ability of individuals to imagine themselves as belonging in a particular environment. The social-cultural stereotypes affect the sense of ambient belonging an individual has of a field’s culture or the persons in that area. If one cannot imagine themselves as belonging to the culture of a field or connecting to the individuals in the field, they are less likely to choose this as their career path. For example, if we think of an entrepreneur as someone who is confident, driven, and works 80+ hours a week ruthlessly pursuing business and economic goals, and an individual cannot imagine themselves as this person, then they may have difficulty imagining themselves as an entrepreneur.
Gaps in the Literature
To address the gender gap in technology entrepreneurship, a better understanding of the barriers women face in these fields is needed. The research on women’s participation in technology entrepreneurship and educational intervention is contradictory and not conclusive (Ahl, 2006, Piperopoulos and Dimov, 2015). Some studies have tried to explain the low participation of women in entrepreneurship and technology-related fields by looking at factors such as women’s quantitative skills, aversion to risk, or reluctance to sacrifice time with family (Henry et al., 2016). This research has been unsuccessful in showing any clear differences between men and women (Henry et al., 2016, Ahl and Marlow, 2012, Henry et al., 2015, Santos et al., 2016). The empirical research studies point to a need for more research into the participation of women in both technology and entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship education, and the university technology transfer pipeline (Ahl, 2006, Cabrera and Mauricio, 2017, Calás and Smircich, 2009, Calas et al., 2009). During this literature review, no research studies were identified which focus on experiential learning models of entrepreneurship education specifically designed to address the issues women face when preparing to enter technology entrepreneurship.
This research is situated within the context of Empowering Women in Technology Startups (Ewits) an experiential entrepreneurial education program offered through the University of Florida Innovation Hub. The results are reported using a case study design which allows the researcher to tell a complete story about the participants and their experiences. The data collection and analysis uses a mixed-methods design with both quantitative and qualitative data collected from program artifacts and semi-structured interviews. The data were analyzed to answer the research questions and to evaluate the theoretical perspectives of gender bias and ambient belonging using feminist epistemology as a guiding principle.
The case study utilizes the place and time-bound system of Empowering Women in Technology Startups (Ewits) educational program. Ewitsis a women’s entrepreneurial education program designed to help women learn about the technology licensing process and gain the self-efficacy to succeed in the technology start-up sector. By selecting Ewits for the case study, this researcher could look more deeply at how and why program participants approached technology entrepreneurship and how their participation in Ewits affected their entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions.
The women associated with this program, regardless of their roles, described a dynamic process of learning and growth for their participation. The participants can be grouped into four different stakeholder groups. The following descriptor terms are used to describe each of the different stakeholder groups.
- Organizers: the women who conceptualized, designed, and facilitated the program;
- Mentors: the women who led the teams through the learning process;
- SMEs (Subject Matter Experts): the authors and presenters of program curriculum including the venture capitalists and angel investors who served as judges and evaluated the investor pitch competitions and business plans;
- Learners: The women who applied to and participated in the program.
The Ewits program has been offered annually since 2012. To date, there have been five cohorts, with 283 applicants, 239 women participating as learners in the program, and 222 women completing the program. There are eight program organizers, 35 mentors, and 29 nine subject matter experts (SMEs), for a total of 311 program participants. In addition, there were several women who were invited to participate as presenters during the weekly informational sessions. These women talked about their experiences as female leaders and entrepreneurs including how they experienced gender disparities, gender bias, and other gender related issues in their careers and leadership roles.
The mixed-methods design was selected because it allows the researcher to address some of the concerns of earlier research in the ability to tell a deeper story about study participants. The mixed-method design incorporates the most compelling features of both quantitative and qualitative data. The feminist epistemology uses a post-structural feminist approach which looks at gender as socially and culturally constructed. Data collection occurred in two phases. During Phase One, existing program artifacts, including learner applications, summative course evaluations, follow-up surveys, course curriculum, team business plans, investor pitch presentations and judges’ scoring sheets were collected and analyzed. The initial analysis from Phase One informed the development of Phase Two, which consisted of semi-structured qualitative interviews with individuals from three groups of program participants (organizers, mentors, and learners). The interviews were thematically coded and analyzed along with data from Phase One to formulate answers to the research questions.
This research study seeks to answer three main questions:
- How does Ewits strive to help women overcome barriers to entry into technology entrepreneurship?
- What impact does Ewits have on participants’ entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions?
- How do participants describe their experience with entrepreneurship?
Significance of the Study
The study contributes to the knowledge of how an educational intervention can help women gain efficacy towards technology entrepreneurship. These understandings will guide development of future educational programming as well help programs such as Ewits improve their impact on the women that participate in the program. The experiences of these participants can inform our understanding of how women actively engage in practices that lead to positive entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions and that may negate the negative influences of gender bias in technology entrepreneurship. In addition, insights are gained into participant’s feelings of ambient belonging in a gendered field. The results from this research can be used to impact the gender inequality in technology entrepreneurship and help to diversify the technology startup workforce.
Organization of the Dissertation
This introduction presented an overview of the research including background and rationale, theoretical perspectives, and research design. In Chapter 2, the Literature Review will discuss the relevant literature including the status of women’s participation in technology entrepreneurship, the case for diversity, including relevant gender theories, entrepreneurial theories, and educational theories. Chapter 3 covers Methodology, which will include data collection, data analysis, and the limitations and assumptions of the research design. Chapter 4 includes the findings from the data collection and analysis. Chapter 5, will discuss the main findings from this research, including the limitations of the study and conclude with recommendations for future studies.