Entrepreneurial Leadership and Gender: Exploring Theory and Practice in Global Contexts

This article reflects on extant scholarship on entrepreneurial leadership and gender, as published
in both the Journal of Small Business Management and elsewhere. As such, it lays the
foundation for the special issue, and contributes to current knowledge in the field. Our selected
papers—summarized and critiqued in this article—collectively offer a contemporary view of
women’s entrepreneurial leadership at the global level that should usefully contribute to extending
scholarly debates. In this regard, we highlight the diversity and complexity of women’s entrepreneurial
leadership, and demonstrate that it is both economically and contextually embedded,
worthy of further scholarly attention. The women’s entrepreneurship literature has
developed significantly in recent decades,
with research emphasis shifting from predominately
descriptive explorations, lacking in
theoretical focus, towards studies demonstrating
a clear effort to embed research within
highly informed conceptual frameworks
(Henry, Foss, and Ahl 2015). Most research
published to date on gender and entrepreneurship
has tended to focus on a number of
common themes, adopting mainly a gender-asvariable
approach (Carter and Shaw 2006) to
draw comparisons between groups of male
and female entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly,
perhaps, some studies considered women’s
business performance relative to their male
counterparts as a lack of aspiration on the part
of women, thus implying that women did not
take business as seriously as men. Indeed,

many of the earlier studies suggested that maleowned
businesses outperformed female-owned
businesses in economic terms, with women’s
apparent under-performance directly linked to
their distinct lack of entrepreneurial capital at
the start-up stage (Johnson and Storey 1993;
Schwartz 1976; Watson and Newby 2007). Collectively,
while such studies have advanced the
field of women’s entrepreneurship—enhancing
understanding and highlighting the contribution
of women-led businesses to the global
economy—contemporary scholarship in this
area now acknowledges the inadvertent tendency
of some accepted research practices to
contribute to the highly gendered perception of
women entrepreneurs as being somewhat inferior
to their male counterparts (Ahl 2006), thus
maintaining and reproducing the subordination
of the feminine (Marlow and Patton 2005).

To a large extent, as articulated by Sinclair
(1998), the entrepreneurial leadership discourse
has succumbed to such subordination
tendencies, essentially rendering invisible the
gendered and sexual dimensions of much contemporary
leadership practice, making them
undiscussable and beyond critique. In the last
few decades, gender has been receiving
increased attention in entrepreneurship scholarship
generally (Ahl and Marlow 2011; Brush
et al. 2010; Carter and Shaw 2006). Notwithstanding
important global research projects on
women’s entrepreneurship by, for example,
GEM (Kelley et al. 2013), and DIANA (Lewis
et al. 2014), as well as extensive literature
review projects by Jennings and Brush (2013)
and Henry et al. (2015), there have been relatively
few research studies that critically
explore gender in the context of entrepreneurial
leadership, particularly at the global level.
Entrepreneurial leadership has been described
as “the dynamic process of presenting
vision, making commitment among followers
and risk acceptance when facing opportunities
that cause efficient use of available resources,
along with discovering and utilizing new
resources with respect to leadership vision”
(Hejazi, Malei, and Naeiji 2012, 1). In this
context, Shane and Kolvereid (1991) explored
the influence of both gender and nationality on
business formation; Wilson, Marlino, and Kickul
(2004) examined leadership skills to explore the
attitudes and motivation of teens across gender
and ethnic identity, and Davis et al. (2010)
examined the effects of a firm leader’s (i.e. the
CEO) gender on growth and profitability.
Reflecting emerging trends in the gender and
entrepreneurship literatures towards the
employment of feminist theories, Patterson
(2011) recognizes entrepreneurial leadership as
a gendered, social process, acknowledging both
follower involvement and individual agency.
Recognizing the importance of context, Levie
and Hart (2011) explored leadership and gender
among social entrepreneurs; Dodd (2012) highlighted
women’s leadership in the creative
industries, and Deacon, Harris, and Worth
(2014) studied business leadership in
copreneurial businesses. Just as the exploration
of gender within entrepreneurship has been
critical to helping scholars identify those entrepreneurial
endeavors previously considered as
“lacking” (Ahl 2004), exploring gender in the
context of entrepreneurial leadership allows us
to see leadership from new and different perspectives,

and attribute greater recognition to
the notion that women’s entrepreneurial leadership
experiences are actually worthy of investigation
in their own right (Carter, Marlow, and
Bennett 2012).
Prior issues of the Journal of Small Business
Management have included a range of scholarly
articles that contribute to the general entrepreneurial
leadership discourse, either directly or
indirectly. For example, an early theoretical
paper by Cunningham and Lischeron (1991)
presented six different schools of thought in
relation to how entrepreneurial activity is described.
Here the authors argued that management
and leadership theory could aid our understanding
of the technical skills needed for both operational
efficiency and motivating people.
Introducing the gender dimension, Van Auken
et al. (1994) studied the advertising methods
used by 121 women-owned businesses in the
United States, and found that the majority of
female entrepreneurial leaders perceived referrals
as both the most utilized and most effective
advertising medium. In 1997, Zapalska’s (1997)
survey-based study found that female entrepreneurs
in Poland did not rate traditional feminine
characteristics any higher than masculine characteristics
in their business decision-making
processes. Subsequently, Fasci and Valdez
(1986) examined and compared performance in
female- and male-led accounting practices in the
United States. Their regression analysis showed
a difference in profitability between these
groups that appeared to be explained by gender,
with the earnings of female-led practices being
negatively impacted. However, in contrast to
Fasci and Valdez (1986), Sonfield et al.’s (2001)
study of business owners in the US found no
significant gender differences in venture innovation,
risk innovation or chosen strategies.
Collectively, such studies reflected the prevailing
research trend toward male-female comparative
and/or female underperformance
studies that were typical of the early gender-asvariable
research approach (Henry, Foss, and
Ahl 2015). Furthermore, such leadership contributions
drew mainly from US data and adopted
quantitative, survey based approaches.
Subsequent to the above studies, we began
to see a wider range of entrepreneurial leadership
studies being published in the Journal
of Small Business Management—studies that
expanded the geographical scope, focus and, to
some extent, the methodological approach
adopted in women’s entrepreneurial leader-

ship research. Noteworthy among these was a
study by Lerner and Almor (2002) of 220 Israeli
business owners, which showed that lifestyle
venture performance was highly correlated
with a business owner’s skills and resources.
The findings suggested that the performance of
women-owned businesses depended more on
marketing and financial skills than on innovation.
In 2006, Morris et al. (2006) combined
quantitative and qualitative data to study the
venture size choices of women entrepreneurs.
Their results suggested that growth is a deliberate
choice, which women have a clear sense
of the costs and benefits of growth, and that
women business leaders make careful trade-off
decisions. Building on this work, Adkins et al.
(2013) studied the relationship between owner
characteristics, company size and the workfamily
culture and policies of women-owned
businesses. The findings from their analysis of
432 women business owners in a southern state
in the US suggested that the business owner’s
motivation, challenges and personal characteristics
were more closely related to the workfamily
culture of the resulting business;
business size was associated with an organization’s
family-friendly policies. In 2014,
Hamilton (2014) contributed to female entrepreneurial
leadership theory by arguing that
epistemological shifts invoke the ontological
dimension of narrative as well as contemporary
theories of gender to understand entrepreneurial
identity. Such identity is co-constituted, and
located in repertoires of historically and culturally
situated narrative. This latter study opens
up new theoretical and methodological possibilities
in gender and entrepreneurship
research. Finally, the recent study by Renko,
Tarabishy, Carsrud, and Brannback (2015)
offers a comprehensive construct for entrepreneurial
leadership, arguing that it involves
influencing and directing the performance of
group members toward achieving those organizational
goals that relate to recognizing and
exploiting contingencies; this in turn influences
the success of entrepreneurial leadership. Such
findings suggest that entrepreneurial leadership
is more prevalent among founder leaders
than non-founder leaders. This is an interesting
finding, and one that places the emphasis
firmly on “entrepreneurship” rather than “management.”
As such, Renko et al.’s contribution
encourages future scholars to focus firmly on
the antecedents and outcomes of successful
entrepreneurial leadership.

For this special issue, we sought papers
that offered novel and valuable perspectives
on entrepreneurial leadership and gender,
informed by robust theoretical or empirical
research, and employing qualitative, quantitative,
or mixed methods to critically explore
entrepreneurial leadership and gender in different
countries, cultures, and industry contexts.
Following the review process, we selected
seven articles for inclusion in our special issue.
Our final selection has a strong international
dimension; the collection comprises both conceptual
and empirical papers, employs a
mixture of methodological approaches and
adopts a range of gender perspectives. Collectively,
these papers offer a contemporary view
of women’s entrepreneurial leadership at the
global level that should usefully contribute to
extending scholarly debates in this field.
In the first paper, Yousafzai and Saeed
(2015) examine the mediating role of the vision
for women’s entrepreneurship on the relationship
between the regulatory, normative and
cognitive pillars of institutional theory and
women’s entrepreneurial leadership in 92
countries. In so doing, they present a multilevel
framework that conceptualizes the contextual
embeddedness of entrepreneurship and institutional
theory. Their GEM-based evidence suggests
that while institutional pillars influence
the vision for women’s entrepreneurship, regulatory
institutions, entrepreneurial cognitions
and entrepreneurial norms all have an impact
on women’s entrepreneurial leadership.
Noting the significant variance in rates of
entrepreneurship across countries, Goltz,
Buche, and Pathak (2015) explore the association
between women’s political power and a
country’s rule of law, and women’s entrepreneurial
entry. Using GEM data, they find both
variables to be positively associated with
women’s entry into entrepreneurship; the association
between political empowerment and
entry into entrepreneurship is moderated by
rule of law, with higher levels of women’s
political power having greater effects in countries
with higher levels of rule of law. Thus,
women’s political representation coupled with
the extent to which laws are enforced in a
country can help explain cross-country variances
in rates of women’s entrepreneurship.
Vassiliki, Jones, Mitchelmore, and
Nikolopoulos (2015) contribute to the leadership
and gender literature by investigating the
role of competences in shaping the leadership

styles of female entrepreneurs in England and
Wales. Their study of micro and small womenled
firms uses explanatory and confirmatory
analysis, as well as univariate and multivariate
analysis, to construct a detailed leadership
profile of successful women entrepreneurial
leaders. Such profile is clearly of benefit to
scholars, practitioners, and policy makers.
McGowan, Cooper, Durkin, and O’Kane
(2015) use a longitudinal, qualitative study of
young female business owners in Northern
Ireland to explore the influence of social and
human capital in defining the prospects of
young women business owners as emerging
entrepreneurial leaders. Their findings suggest
that many young women are insufficiently
resourced in terms of their social and human
capital, and that such deficits have consequences
for the effectiveness of their leadership
potential and the development of their enterprises.
Similar to Vassiliki et al.’s study,
McGowan et al.’s contribution will be of value
to the wider entrepreneurship community,
especially policy makers.
Drawing on almost a decade of qualitative
data, Lewis uses a longitudinal case study and
phenomenological approach to demonstrate
how a New Zealand based female entrepreneur
enacts entrepreneurial leadership over time. The
paper draws on identity work to critically examine
relevant leadership and identity literatures.
A narrative approach is adopted to analyze the
empirical data. Lewis’s study (Lewis 2015) demonstrates
how the female entrepreneur’s firm—
Willow Shoes—became a type of identity work
space—one that was ultimately more empowering
than a traditional occupational workplace.
This notion does not appear to have been previously
researched at the empirical level, but yet
it appears here as a critical resource for development
of entrepreneur’s self-identity.
In the first of our two selected conceptual
papers, Galloway, Kapasi, and Sang (2015)
unpack extant conceptualizations of entrepreneurship
and leadership, with specific reference
to the limiting effect that currently
gendered interpretations have on our understanding
of these important social and economic
phenomena. In particular, the authors
propose that the performativity proposition
within feminist theory could help develop
understanding of both entrepreneurship and
leadership. Their paper presents alternative
perspectives on both entrepreneurship and

leadership that challenge current conceptualizations
as fixed objective phenomena.
In our final paper, Harrison, Leitch, and
McAdam suggest that the recent expansion in
the literature on entrepreneurial leadership has
not been matched with the development of
appropriate theoretical frameworks, theory
building or conceptual analyses. In their conceptual
paper, they draw on the “breaking
glass” metaphor to offer an extensive gendered
study of entrepreneurial leadership. The
authors propose a research agenda for the
gendered analysis of the rapidly expanding
interface between leadership and entrepreneurship.
They contribute to extant scholarship by
identifying three levels of themes around which
the future development of entrepreneurial leadership
can be organized: micro level: social
construction; meso level: diversity—critical
men’s studies, race and ethnic studies; macro
level: global perspectives.
The research presented in this special issue
demonstrates that the traditional view of
women entrepreneurs possibly being less
capable or lacking in comparison to their male
counterparts is both out dated and inaccurate.
Our contribution here illustrates both the
diversity and complexity of women’s entrepreneurial
leadership, demonstrating that it is not
just economically, but contextually embedded.
Furthermore, if future scholars were to apply
some of the theoretical frameworks presented
in our selected articles, then the academy
would have a much better understanding of
women’s entrepreneurial leadership and its
value to the wider community. Indeed, the
research we have presented here goes some
way toward addressing the future research
strategies proposed by Harrison et al. (2015),
especially in the context of providing a more
global perspective on women’s entrepreneurial
leadership. We encourage future scholars to
follow suit.
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