2008 NAWBO Conference: It's a Man's World -- Or Is It?

July 16, 2008

A recent Knowledge@W. P. Carey video featured women business owners and experts: a Web site entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, an anchor/producer and a home health agency franchiser. Serious, confident and composed, they answer questions posed by a journalist covering the National Association of Business Owners annual conference held June 12-14 in Phoenix.

And until the journalist speaks with Jennifer Wagner Jones, the conference-goers' collective take on being female in an echelon that was traditionally dominated by men was "yes, it's an issue, but you can overcome it."

Then Jones, who is president and chief executive officer of Seed Technologies, Inc., based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, speaks her startling truth: no, she has never faced any gender-based challenges as a business owner. Seed Technologies offers services such as Web site design, software development and networking.

Jones' comments are particularly intriguing because women accounted for just 27 percent of her field -- information technology -- in the U.S. last year, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

"I haven't really noticed a difference in opportunities or challenges. I go out, and I perform business, and it makes no difference whether I'm a man or a woman," Jones said.

 Is Jones' gender-blind experience rare, or is the playing field leveling for working women in general? Probably a bit of both.

Attitude vs. assumptions

Like other women business owners, Jones stresses the importance of attitude in setting the workplace tone, adding, "If you go into business with the attitude that 'I am going to have challenges as a woman,' then you are going to create that around you."

But a professional, in-charge attitude doesn't always head off typecasting a woman as the support-staff person. Mary Jo Bitner is holder of the prestigious PetSmart Chair in Services Leadership at the W. P. Carey School of Business and the academic director of the school's well-known Center for Services Leadership. "Sometimes when two professionals are together, assumptions are made about their roles which tend to type-cast the woman in a lesser role," she said.

Gender-based conferences an answer?

The support and networking opportunities women find at a gender-based business conference such as the NAWBO event can help their coping skills when faced with such retro moments, she and several other experts said.

"The exceptionally strong attendance at this year's NAWBO conference is the best indicator that gender-based conferences are delivering special value," said Beth Walker, the State Farm Professor of Marketing and faculty director of the W. P. Carey MBA - Evening Program.

"While there are many reasons that might explain the success of NAWBO, the inspiration and energy that comes from meeting and listening to role models that share similar backgrounds, values and challenges is most powerful."

Attitudes toward women business owners have improved in recent years, said Amy Hillman, a management professor and department chairperson. Hillman also holds the Jerry and Mary Ann Chapman chair at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

In fact, Hillman does not "believe the challenges for women business owners today are any different than for male business owners … I don't see a group reticent to take on the challenges of business ownership. Instead I see a group of people no less capable due to their gender. I was surprised and saddened to hear the one interviewee's opinion on the video that women are their own enemies and have more to prove to other women. I just don't see that."

Hillman likely referred to Donna Roley, founder and president of Progressive Business Information Systems Inc., of Tulsa, Oklahoma. During her part of the video interview, Roley said, in part, that women business owners were skeptical of her IT skills, while men tended to accept her more easily.

"In a man's world, 20 years ago when I started, if I showed them competency, it was a done deal. I simply had to demonstrate my skill and I was accepted and one of the boys and life was good," Roley recalled. "However, the women in business were a little concerned about having a woman work on their computer, tear it apart, crawl under their desk [and] deliver programming solutions. That was not something they were used to seeing and it took a step above, an extra level of excellence and communication to make the link."

From the perspective of an associate professor of marketing, Amy Ostrom indicates that the playing field is more even than not. "I don't think, across the board, there are strong differences in the challenges facing female versus male business owners," she said.

Other women's voices

Back at the NAWBO conference, executive coach Runa Magnusdottir, founder and CEO of Interconnect, a business and consulting firm based in Seltjarnarnes, Iceland, tells her peers to leave fear behind when weighing risks. Too often, she said, women do not "allow themselves to peek out and see if there is something worthwhile out there." She added, "Once you take that first little step, it's going to be so much easier."

Ivy Hartman faces an additional challenge beyond the classic and ongoing struggle to balance family and career responsibilities. She's an anchorwoman and producer at sbtv.com, an Internet channel focusing on small business, so there's not a day when she doesn't have to look good and sound fresh.

"That first impression, and fashion and personal image play an integral role in my profession. So I battle those kinds of things, but the opportunities I have because of those things also really opens a lot of doors," Hartman explained.

Venture capitalist Donna Childs feels the same family/career-juggling stress as Hartman. Like many of her peers, caring for her aging parents also is an issue, and she wonders how many men in her position carry that responsibility. But she makes an interesting observation: since she is a woman in a primarily male field, she already is outside the norm, and feels "freer to experiment than my male counterparts. That's been very liberating and very good for the business," she added. Childs Capital is based in New York, N.Y., and benefits poor communities around the world.

When she worked as a registered nurse, and later, as an executive for large health care corporations, Dana Rambow found herself pinned down by the glass ceiling. "Men primarily held the upper-echelon positions," she recalled. One of the best things about owning AristoCare Franchise Corp., a Tucson, Arizona, company that offers home health services, is it "afforded me the opportunity to run the show my own way and be able to offer opportunities for other women."

Research backs up anecdotes

Their comments square with research being done by Anne Tsui, Morotola Professor of International Management at the W. P. Carey School and editor-in-chief of Management and Organization Review. Currently, Tsui is the distinguished visiting professor at the Guangha School of Management in Peking, China.

Tsui and her team interviewed 637 male and female entrepreneurs in 2006-2007, to find out if they use networking differently to facilitate their business success. The businesses, all less than eight years old, are in the U.S., France, Russia and China. Average size: 36 employees. Researchers measured success in terms of each firm's annual revenue growth. "On average, we found the revenue growth for firms owned by women is 28 percent, while for men it is 44 percent," Tsui noted.

There are multiple reasons that may drive the numbers, she said. The possible reasons include: 1) women have fewer business opportunities than men -- unequal resource endowment such as access to finances, marketing and distribution channels; 2) women can devote less time to their business than men given their added family responsibility; 3) women set lower goals deliberately in order to achieve a better balanced life; 4) women have social goals of managing a good rather than a large business for their employees and society and 5) women don't think big -- they have unconsciously self-imposed limits."

Bottom Line:

  • Looking for a female mentor, advisor or role model? Head for the next gender-based conference, suggested marketing associate professor Amy Ostrom.
  • In terms of business styles, women tend to be more collaborative and integrative, but less comfortable with the financial aspects of business than their male counterparts, according to W.P. Carey's Beth Walker.
  • More details on Anne Tsui's research, conducted in conjunction with Bat Batjargal at Harvard University, Jean-Luc Arregle at EDHEC, France and Michael Hitt at Texas A&M University: Of the firms surveyed, 25 percent were in high-tech industries, and 49 percent were in trade or service industries. Men and women were equally represented in high tech (23 and 27 percent, respectively), but there were proportionally more women (55 percent) than men (40 percent) in trade and services. The average age of the entrepreneurs was 38.