OPINION: Why women succeed at social entrepreneurship

by Sophie Hobson | School for Social Entrepreneurs
Thursday, 5 March 2020 14:50 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Urban farmer Olivia Hubert, co-owner of Brother Nature Produce, waters salad greens growing in a hoop house on her one-acre urban farm in Detroit, Michigan, March 18, 2012. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook.

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Social entrepreneurship is a nascent sector, free from beliefs about what its leaders should look like or where they should come from

Divya Shah was 14 years old when she was inappropriately touched by a stranger on a bus while travelling back from school in Maharashtra, India. She could not explain the incident to her parents – she just didn’t have the vocabulary. But today she has all the right words for adolescents in challenging situations.

She has educated 12,000 Indian teenagers about sexual and mental health through ThatMate, a start-up she co-founded with Madhavi Jadhav. The women are part of a global surge in female social entrepreneurs: people who start up enterprises that tackle social and environmental problems.

An estimated 45% of the world’s social entrepreneurs are female, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a research project.

This is strikingly more gender-balanced than other types of leadership. In worldwide politics, one in four national parliamentarians are women. Women hold only 29% of senior management positions in global businesses.

Sure, the Fortune 500, comprised of the largest companies in the United States, has more female chief executives than ever before. But do not get too excited because these women still represent less than 7% of the total.

The not-for-profit sector is not much better. In Britain almost 70% of the chief executives of the largest charities are – you guessed it – men.

The reverse is true among the leaders we support at the School for Social Entrepreneurs: two-thirds are female in Britain and Northern Ireland and we help many more in Canada and India.

So why are there more women leaders in social entrepreneurship than in other fields, proportionally speaking?

You might speculate that it is because social enterprise is driven by compassion rather than bald capitalism. Social entrepreneurs want to make profit but they reinvest it to tackle a social issue. Women are the more caring and nurturing gender – or so the stereotype goes.

Frankly, I have always found it reductionist and ridiculous to suggest half the world’s population share a personality.

But it is probably fair to say that women are vulnerable to a broader spectrum of social injustices than men.One in five women and girls has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner within the past year. The World Economic Forum reckons global gender parity is still a century away.

So if you are a woman determined to fight injustice, how do you go about creating change? It can be difficult to reach positions of influence in politics, business and large charities. Entrepreneurship offers a pathway with low barriers to entry.

You do not need to be elected or selected by other people. You do not need to win the approval of men. You can simply start up a project, right here and now.

Being a social entrepreneur requires a deep understanding of the issue you are tackling. First-hand experience of injustice is an asset. It legitimises your role as a change-maker. It can prompt you to devise solutions that might not fly in other sectors.

Take Canine Perspective, a social enterprise that brings survivors of sexual violence together with rescue dogs, founded by Marie Yates. Exploring the dogs’ stories enables discussions about how to approach surviving and recovery.

A survivor herself, Marie had found solace in her rescue dog Reggie, so she knew the approach would work. The social enterprise subsidises the programme with profits from dog-training lessons and products.

It is hard to imagine an idea like this being cooked up as part of a master of business degree or being funded by venture capitalists. But Marie did not need affirmation from any establishment to proceed.

Social entrepreneurship is a nascent sector. It is free from beliefs about what its leaders should look like or where they should come from. It does not have behavioural codes. It is not suffering with the hangover of institutional sexism, from a recent past drunk on masculinity.

It is not so much that social enterprise is especially fertile ground for women to succeed. It is that other sectors, having largely been engineered by men, are often exclusory to people of other genders.

So if other sectors want to welcome women to their seats of power they need to recalibrate their values. Those committed to a fairer future for all will attract people most marginalised by the present.

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