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Nested Constraints: A Global Perspective on Women’s Entrepreneurship

Studying entrepreneurship provides a much wider and clearer view of the restrictions surrounding women in the world economy than does studying employment.  Especially with the new gender reports and datasets coming out of international agencies, as well as the considerable research stream now being generated about interventions to stimulate women’s economic inclusion, cross-cultural comparisons that were not possible even ten years ago can now be made.

Underneath the bright and varied colors of culture, the basic restrictions on women in the economy are the same.

Efforts at poverty reduction or economic development are often focused on entrepreneurship because poorer nations usually have little formal employment. Women in those countries often must rely on some form of entrepreneurship to have any income at all. However, many of the constraints on women’s enterprise can be felt in other settings—even by female tech entrepreneurs, for instance.

What is emerging from this global effort to include women as entrepreneurs is a new picture of multiple restrictions that are surprisingly common around the world.  These restrictions—especially on financial participation, but also on access to productive resources and markets—are added to other more commonly recognized constraints, such as limits on mobility and the threat of violence, in an overlapping way.  The economic restrictions are, furthermore, deeply entangled with these other constraints, which often act as a check on any attempts to change women’s economic status.

This phenomenon of “nested constraints” will be the topic of my talk at Brown University on March 12.  I think this aspect of women’s exclusion will be new to most in the audience, largely because the “Western” countries have been so frequently focused on labor these past fifty years. Feminist thought, in the very few cases where it considers entrepreneurship at all, tends to levy moral judgment on women who own their own businesses, a predisposition that creates blinders to the circumstances of most women outside the rich nations.

Despite religious, economic, and even topographical differences among women, the economic constraints that keep them subordinate are eerily similar across the globe.

Our understanding of the full scope of women’s economic disadvantage has also been blocked by the compartmentalization, pretenses to objectivity, and tendency toward excessive abstraction that typifies economics. And, the approach to entrepreneurship within business schools usually takes an implausibly “gender blind” stance or treats females as “underperforming” business owners.

Another mental block to the cross-cultural study of female entrepreneurship has been a thirty-year-old trend within feminism to insist on the utter dissimilarity of women’s experiences across cultures, especially between North and South.  This way of thinking treats international efforts to relieve the suffering of women in developing countries as cultural hegemony and throw epithets like “neoliberalism” in that direction.

Yet today’s “women’s economic empowerment” movement has built remarkable strength at the global level among international agencies from UNICEF to the World Bank, governments (especially through USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development), global NGOs (like CARE International), and even multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and Qualcomm.  Their mission to eradicate traditional constraints on women’s economic activities—especially with regard to entrepreneurship—has brought a keen awareness of the striking similarities in the systems that keep women out of the economy.

In that light, calls from all over the world are emerging for women to work together on bringing down these very effective barriers to women’s autonomy in every realm.

On March 12, I will give a talk called “Nested Constraints: Women’s Entrepreneurship Around the World” at Brown University, where I am currently a visiting scholar at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. The talk is open to the public and will be held from 12 Noon to 1:30 PM on the second floor of Hillel House in Providence. 


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