Gender and social enterprise

Recently I participated in a fascinating Q&A on The Guardian about women and social enterprise. It reinforced how diverse the social enterprise space already is and the fantastic contributions made by a range of women, though it also highlighted the work that remains to be done. It got me thinking about the role of gender in social enterprise more generally…


It is oft quoted that social enterprises are far more likely to be led by women than mainstream businesses. The recent State of Social Enterprise (SOSE) survey found that 38% of social enterprises have a female leader, whilst it’s also been shown that 35% of public sector leaders are women. This is compared with 19% of SMEs and just 4% of FTSE 100 companies. The SOSE survey also found that 91% of social enterprises have at least one woman on their leadership team.

Women and social enterprise (2)

The Guardian Q+A panel started by discussing why social enterprise seemed to be better at attracting women in to its ranks than many other types of business. One key theme that came out of the debate was the ostensibly different culture, though more specifically, an emerging culture. Because the space is so new, it can be argued that it doesn’t have as many of the unwritten rules and norms that have been shown to hold women back. The City for instance has had a bad reputation for not recognising and rewarding women equally – it was about 300 years before Lloyds of London first allowed women to become underwriters, and that wasn’t even until 1970!

Another commentator in the debate suggested that the sector was far more conscious of attracting and empowering women than others may or have been. It has been suggested that policymakers and intermediaries in this space are more conscious of the images and case studies they use, the diversity of speakers they have at events and so on. From my own experience it seems true that many in the sector are keen to avoid using the usual suspects and to bring new role models to the fore.


It was a fascinating conversation, because as it progressed it became clear that many of us assume that there may be certain female traits behind more women becoming social entrepreneurs. But as one commentator put it, assuming can make and ass out of you and me:

“I’ve found that views which speak of “innate” qualities as the main rationale behind different trends can be unevidenced, uncritical and stereotypical, often opinion portrayed as fact. I don’t contest trends but do urge for more tentative and complexity-accepting ways of exploring and articulating this topic”.

This is a particularly pertinent point, because as was also pointed out, when you interrogate the data a bit more, women generally lead smaller or newer social enterprises, and appear to find accessing and securing finance more challenging than their male counterparts. At the time, my response to this comment mentioned the work of Feminist academic Alison Jaggar. Jaggar also warns against the assumption that there are ‘innate’ differences between men and women, and I think this has particular relevance for social enterprise, as well as social finance.

Jaggar is very much from the School of Social Construction. Children, she argues, are taught how to react to certain situations during their primary and secondary socialisation (e.g. by their family and school). So she highlights for example how boys have historically been persuaded that they shouldn’t cry.  She argues that, when coupled with cultural variations in people’s emotional reactions, it is not universal for women to be more emotional and men to be more rational. From a feminist perspective this is important, as that which is emotional is often seen as less valuable than that which is rational.

This theory has relevance for social enterprise. Unfortunately, we sometimes see these assumptions and gender divisions rolled out. This may not seem like an issue at first. ‘It’s just semantics’, some might say. But, if left unchallenged, these inherent biases could negatively impact on the success of the whole social enterprise project.


I’ve already written about this dichotomy before, where I’d found research which suggests that having a group of people that are considered emotional, and another that are considered rational, can be unhelpful. According to another academic, Rosie Anderson, emotionality (behaviour and language associated with the emotional) has a strong presence in community level activism. Conversely, when it comes to policy making we want to replace this “ambiguous, unreliable and potentially overwhelming knowledge” with more rational, evidence-based decision making.

Hopefully it’s not hard to see where this is going. Women are well represented across social enterprise, but tend to be concentrated in smaller ventures, generally operating at the grassroots level. As The Guardian brief noted, there is still a pressing lack of diversity in social enterprise leadership. Many of the figures and voices in the sector are male. It seems to me that there is often an unspoken assumption that women are more emotional so can better deal with, and are more attracted to, the social stuff, whilst men are more rational so should look after the money. Whether or not this is correct, what is happening (as in much of life) is that rationality is valued over emotionality.

Furthermore, whether conscious or not, by voluntarily subscribing to these distinctions it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We assume roles based upon such assumptions, and then have to negotiate others’ expectations of us, and how we should act and think. To get a bit existential, ‘Hell is other people’ – we generally have the same aims, but in defining roles for ourselves we place constraints upon each other.

This of course is a wider, societal problem. But it seems to be playing out in an interesting way amongst social enterprises, and I personally feel weakens the foundations of a movement which often tries to present itself as a genuine alternative to ‘business as usual’. I would argue that without acknowledging implicit biases such as these, the sector is never going to realise it’s full potential.


It could be argued that intermediaries are developing a culture where only certain kinds of emotional knowledge are allowed, and in turn reducing social impact to numbers and metrics. There is a clear preference for the rational, and with so much money at stake it is easy to see why. Yet in psychoanalysis this is known as ‘splitting’, and we have collectively given one set of traits to one group, and incompatible traits to everyone else.

For a long time there has been a strong emphasis on demonstrating financial performance, although increasingly this is being supplanted by an emphasis on demonstrating social impact (albeit through quantitative metrics). Further to this, not only do intermediaries present themselves as ‘less emotional’, but this is seemingly legitimised by the influx of money directly to intermediaries (albeit usually for the purposes of passing on to social entrepreneurs). Coupled with the growing emphasis on financial performance and quantified methods of reporting social impact, it is easy to understand how emotionality becomes marginalised and why some social entrepreneurs may feel their work is undervalued.

So if you are a social entrepreneur who feels your passion and emotion for a social cause is your modus operandi, you’ll increasingly find yourself confronted with a rational world seemingly far removed from the reality on the ground, where value is calculated in pounds and ‘social change’ measured in numbers. Whilst this affects social entrepreneurs of both sexes, if we pigeon-hole women in to the ’emotion’ box, it is undoubtedly going to impact them more. Recent trends suggests we are seeing this already, with evidence from SEUK and UnLtd suggesting women are less likely to go for social finance.


The sector needs to find better ways of valuing the emotional, the qualitative, the supposedly ‘softer outcomes’. Valuing these things as much as the numbers is one way to break down gendered perspectives.

Another key thing, though equally as abstract, is shaking off  assumptions about why women are in social enterprise and the roles they should fulfil. We need to move beyond the assumptions and misconceptions so common to other business sectors if we are to ensure that this sector develops in a fair and accessible way for all groups.

But what do you think? 


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