New research by Schulich School of Business Associate Professor Ivona Hideg shows that women-led startups are evaluated less favourably than men-led startups because of “benevolent sexism” – a form of bias that undermines gender equity by giving greater advantages to men.
The findings are contained in an article published recently in the journal Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. The article, titled “Benevolent Sexism and the Gender Gap in Startup Evaluation,” was co-authored by Hideg, the Ann Brown Chair in Organization Studies at Schulich, together with Nhu Nguyen, a PhD student in organizational behaviour at the Desautels Faculty of Management; Yuval Engel, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the Amsterdam Business School; and Frédéric Godart, associate professor of organizational behaviour at INSEAD.
According to the researchers, benevolent sexism undermines gender equity in startup evaluations by boosting men’s outcomes without directly harming women’s outcomes.
The researchers initially hypothesized that the more evaluators endorse benevolent sexism – perceiving women as gentle and fragile – the less they would perceive startups founded by women as viable. Counter to their hypothesis, the researchers didn’t find any effect of benevolent sexism on the evaluation of women-led startups. However, the more evaluators endorsed benevolent sexism, the more positively they evaluated men-led startups. In other words, benevolent sexism was advantaging evaluations of men’s startups while seemingly not affecting evaluations of women’s startups.
“We know that hostile sexist attitudes that link entrepreneurial savvy and competence with men but not women can harm women,” says Hideg. “But what’s revealing about these findings is that benevolent sexism can be just as counter productive. Benevolent sexism involves seemingly positive attitudes toward women, seeing them as warm, moral, refined, yet fragile and in need of protection from men. This type of sexism is socially acceptable and rarely seen as problematic.”