Women entrepreneurs face ‘thorny floors’


The life of women entrepreneurs in the field of technology is rife with opposition and sabotage by male subordinates, what two York University researchers call the “thorny floors” phenomenon, as opposed to the glass ceiling.

Professors Souha Ezzedeen and Jelena Zikic in York’s School of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies looked at the experiences and obstacles women entrepreneurs face in the still male-Jelena Zikicdominated Canadian high technology sector. Their paper, “Entrepreneurial Experiences of Women in Canadian High Technology” was published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship.

Jelena Zikic

“For women in particular entrepreneurship is touted as a way to avoid career barriers imposed by the glass ceiling and to enjoy the flexibility to better manage work and family requirements,” says Ezzedeen. It is estimated that the number of women entrepreneurs in Canada has increased by 200 per cent over the last 20 years, in part as a response to the frustration of the glass ceiling.

“However, technology remains somewhat different as an industry due to its competitiveness, fast pace, strong pressures for growth and its male-dominated character,” she says. “We went in expecting to find gender barriers for women, but we weren’t sure what these barriers look like when the woman is her own boss.”

What they found surprised them. The women entrepreneurs encountered persistent gender stereotypes, as well as resistance from associates within and outside of their organizations.

“We found that gender-related barriers are systemic in technology, women encounter it from all stakeholders they deal with, including financiers, peers and, we were surprised to find, their own male subordinates, who openly resisted and sabotaged their female bosses under the guise that ‘women and technology don’t mix’,” says Ezzedeen.

Souha Ezzedeen“We coined this the ‘thorny floors’ phenomenon. It’s another metaphor to describe specific barriers to women’s advancement, along with the existing metaphors of the glass ceiling, glass cliff and labyrinth walls.” The term “labyrinth walls” speaks to the all-around resistance to the woman’s leadership.

Souha Ezzedeen

For this qualitative study, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Canadian women in a total sample of 22 entrepreneurs to gain personal perspectives on gender, entrepreneurship and technology. The women entrepreneurs Zikic and Ezzedeen interviewed believed that the technology field was ultimately merit-driven because it is fundamentally a scientific field. Even so, it took more for these women to get ahead and to be accepted than it did their male counterparts.

“One would think that they are finished with discrimination and ‘glass ceilings’ because they are self-employed, and are their own boss so to speak. Not quite so,” says Ezzedeen. “These women do not experience glass ceilings as their counterparts in the corporate world do, but they still encounter resistance and prejudice on the part of other male stakeholders, including industry associates, financiers and subordinates.”

What Zikic and Ezzedeen also found interesting was that these gender barriers could be short-lived. Once the women demonstrated the scientific or technological value of their business proposition, these barriers seemed to dissipate and they were not only more accepted, but experienced less resistance to their leadership.

In addition, the study found these women experienced societal pressures to maintain appropriate levels of work-family balance, as well as a lack of female role models.