Thébaud (2015). Business as Plan B: Institutional Foundations of Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurship across 24 Industrialized Countries

Sarah Thébaud – University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), Department of Sociology

Julia Melin – Stanford University, Department of Sociology
Natasha Overmeyer – Stanford University, Graduate School of Business

Article link:

1. Could you tell us more about the motivation behind this paper? Did prior research lead you to ask this question, were you influenced by real world observations, or was it a mixture of both?

Thébaud: I guess the official answer is probably some mixture of both. However, it was mostly the prior literature, to be honest. I came at this with having a somewhat parallel background in the gender literature—which was very much looking at labor market outcomes and the relationship between women’s labor market segregation, leadership positions, professional employment, etc. – the relationship between those outcomes and institutional factors. Then there’s this literature on gender and entrepreneurship. Part of the reason why I wrote my dissertation on that topic was because there seemed to be a big gap in that literature from the gender standpoint. At least, sociologists hadn’t really written on gender and entrepreneurship very much. I thought, there’s all this information about gender and institutions, but people haven’t really been connecting it with entrepreneurship—with some exceptions in the gender and entrepreneurship literature, of course. But I really wanted to marry the thinking behind those.

So, I’d say a lot of it was the prior research, but then there’s definitely some anecdotal evidence that you can kind of look around and see. There’s Etsy. There are all these women starting somewhat smaller businesses, and they often will just say ‘It’s because I can do this from home,’ or ‘I can do this part time,’ or ‘I’m going to start a clothing business online and it’s fun.’ That’s a very different orientation from someone who’s doing something like a high-tech startup that you’re trying to get a multi-million-dollar investment for. You see women doing both of those things, but there’s a big difference there that had been kind of neglected, suggesting entrepreneurship is this monolithic idea. But actually, it’s quite multifaceted.

2. In your paper, you focus on three work-family policy approaches (government-subsidized paid leave for mothers, government-subsidized childcare, and the availability of part-time work). How did you decide upon these? Were they from prior literature, or from things you were seeing in the real world? Are there any other work-family policies that have more recently surfaced that you think would contribute to women being less inclined to pursue entrepreneurship?

Thébaud: For the first question, definitely prior literature. Mostly Janet Gornick and Marsha Meyers’ work on work-family policies. I think that perspective shaped me a lot. They wrote an entire edited volume on this in 2009 with a whole discussion around it. That whole literature has focused for a long time on these three pillars. You need some paid leave – some but not too much. And you need reliable childcare. And then the third factor is some flexibility in terms of scheduling and being able to reduce your hours. The third one is a little tricky to capture, though. I decided to use part-time work as a proxy because that gives you an idea for how many people are really able to go down to those kinds of jobs. It’s complicated because some people have more flexibility in terms of hours than others. Flexibility, meaning, I’m going to remain employed full-time but just change my hours. And then some countries have policies that enable people to have better part-time jobs—well-paid part-time jobs where you can remain a professional and work fewer hours. Whereas in the U.S., we don’t really have a system like that. If you go part-time, you also have the drop down in status and pay. I think at the national level, that’s kind of tricky to capture, but that was the third pillar in the literature that I was trying to look at.

In terms of new work-family policies, I recently wrote an article in Sociology Compass on this issue. I don’t think there’s all that much that’s new in terms of the policies themselves. Maybe a little bit around the edges in terms of some companies offering job-sharing policies or perhaps some changes in telecommuting. However, that’s not always a positive. It’s a complicated answer. So, I guess not much—that would be my answer. I don’t think there’s been much in terms of change. There has been some change in fertility policies, but I don’t think that pertains very much to what we’re talking about.

3. Our next question is about your methods. Many scholars talk about the difficulties of publishing research without causal identification. However, a lot of important research is not causal, but rather identifies effects and relationships that are often underexamined or counterintuitive to what we would expect. Do you have advice for scholars conducting work that is quantitative but not causal, such as working with survey data?

Thébaud: That’s a good question. I have a penchant for causality, since a lot of my other work is experimental or quasi-experimental in nature. In terms of work like this, which is clearly not causal, it’s more looking at the big picture and relationships, and getting a sense of the context and how the context might relate to these different outcomes. So, one point I would make is that if we have data like this that’s messy—cross-national data is inherently messy and even the case comparative method is messy (there’s millions of moving parts) – one thing that I think helps distill, or get a little bit more clarity, is looking at a lot of different outcomes.

In this paper, I tried to do that. I didn’t have just one outcome, and I didn’t code entrepreneurship as simply, “Did they start a business?”. It was more, if we think of institutional arrangements or policies as kinds of levers that are going to affect people’s motivations, let’s see how that affects all these different kinds of outcomes related to entrepreneurial behavior to get a holistic picture of everything. I think that can help. Then more specifically, trying to get more of a handle on the mechanism that you’re proposing is driving relationships. In this article, I was theorizing that these institutions are gendered levers around motivations, and so I was able to actually evaluate – or at least I had that measure of – motivations, and I think that really helped me get a better handle on understanding if the institutions seem to be related to the outcomes for the reason I was proposing. I think for a paper that’s not causal, having some sort of picture—where you have this big relationship and you can establish that there’s a relationship between these two things—and then if you can establish that there’s a relationship between these individual-level motivations and these macro-level outcomes, I think that helps a lot. And it gives you a little bit more confidence. It’s the best we can do in that situation.

4. You mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the paper that this work came out of your dissertation, which received funding from the Kauffman Foundation. Could you tell us more about the process you went through to publish your dissertation work, and if you have any advice for PhD students who are looking to pursue funding for their dissertations?

Thébaud: This paper was one of three papers that came out of my dissertation research. There’s this one and then there are two other articles, both of which actually came out before this article did. I knew when I wrote the dissertation that it was going to be three articles overlapping in topic. But I guess the process was mainly what I would recommend for publishing any kind of paper which is: get lots and lots of feedback from your mentors, your peers, and especially working groups. Working groups can involve faculty, but sometimes just other students. We pass around the paper and everybody gives you detailed feedback. You can workshop the paper then fix it up again and then you get more feedback. So, a lot of that prior to sending it out and then of course the submission process is again like that. You get reviews and you try to keep improving on the paper and even if it’s really critical feedback it usually ends up helping. Then finally, just have patience because it takes a while. It’s just a long process. Sometimes it turns out to be fairly short. But I think it’s good if you set your expectations that it’s going to be a long process. You’re less likely to be disappointed if it does take a long time. Just be persistent with it.

In terms of advice for funding: Just keep an open eye and look around widely for different funding sources. Of course, there’s the usual suspects like NSF, but you might be surprised about what you can find that’s out there. There are pockets of money in many different places. And often it’s very topic specific, which I didn’t initially realize. I found out about the Kauffman Fellowship because I was part of a working group community of other scholars who were at Cornell studying entrepreneurship. So that’s one way to find out about opportunities. Get connected with other people who are publishing in your area, or even look up the people who you’re citing and see perhaps where they’ve received funding from. That can give you ideas.

5. In the paper you provide evidence to support your claim that women are relatively less likely to choose entrepreneurship as a fallback employment strategy in institutional contexts that offer supportive work arrangements. Some scholars are predicting that after the dust settles from COVID-19, we will see the wide scale adoption of work-from-home and telecommuting persist among employers. If this ends up being the case, what kinds of effects do you see these institutional policies having on women’s entrepreneurial activity down the road? 

Thébaud: That’s a very interesting question… I think it really would have different effects depending on the woman, her motivations and objectives, and her occupation. On the one hand, it might be that the women who are trying to juggle caregiving responsibilities and whose work has gone remote during this time (who are mostly white-collar workers) will be able to telecommute more often in the future and therefore, might be more likely to stick with their jobs over the long haul. So, for these women, you would think that this shift to more telecommuting is going to help them remain in those jobs. And then I would expect that if the economic recovery is slow, it’ll be especially attractive for those women to stick with those jobs because a regular salary is a lot more stable than going off and starting a new business. In a slow economy, a stable job is really attractive. Now the big caveat to that is that this scenario only applies to workers that are even able to telecommute. It doesn’t apply to retail workers, restaurant workers, or personal care workers like hair stylists. And another consideration which I think is also unique to this crisis is that the women who do find themselves out of a job right now—there are a lot of people who are just out of a job and they’re home with their kids—this experience might actually prompt them to start getting creative and try to start a small-scale business online. Like an Etsy or online clothing shop. I would put those into that category of small-scale, “family friendly” business models, perhaps.

Ultimately, I think the effect is really going to depend on a number of factors. Such as the number of women who are actually out of work once this crisis is finally over, the extent to which they’re able to return to their jobs, which sectors women lost their jobs in, and whether or not this telecommuting thing really persists in the long term. That’s not a totally clear answer but I think there’s competing effects. I don’t necessarily think we’re going to see some huge boom of women starting high-growth businesses after this. I just don’t see it because of the factors I mentioned. 

6. You were in graduate school during the 2008 financial crisis. At that time there was a lot of uncertainty across industries and in academia. What was that like for you? Do you have any advice for current PhD students who are concerned about how their plans might be affected by the pandemic?

Thébaud: It was stressful. You just have to stick with it. I think the most useful piece of advice I would have is to be open minded and have lots of contingency plans…like a Plan B and Plan C. Look for postdocs. I was very fortunate that I ended up with a postdoc that was developed for economic sociologists studying the financial crisis, but that was something that didn’t pop up right away. Perhaps more opportunities like that will pop up for this cohort of graduate students who are going to need some more postdoc opportunities or a fellowship, perhaps, that could keep you in graduate school another year. I would just take a deep breath, try to remain positive, and stick with it because there are a lot of other people in your situation. Keep your eyes open for all the possibilities—and even though it is a lot easier said than done, have patience.

Interviewer Bios:

Julia Melin: Julia Melin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Ph.D. minor candidate in the Department of Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University. Her research is broadly focused on gender, organizations, and labor market inequality.

Natasha Overmeyer: Natasha Overmeyer is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. 

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