Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Applying a Gender Lens to Social Entrepreneurship

Applying a Gender Lens to Social Entrepreneurship

The persistence of patriarchy in the business world is well documented. Social entrepreneurship, which is derived from business-based structures and management logic, suffers from similar problems. Women are underrepresented in the social sector among those holding the purse strings, board seats, and top leadership. Among large U.S. nonprofits, 71 percent have male CEOs and 69 percent have predominantly male boards, but 66 percent have majority-women staff, according to a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and New York University. There are even imbalances among the top social entrepreneurship programs, where women constitute between 32 and 42 percent of fellowships awarded by Ashoka, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and the Skoll World Forum.

Gender imbalance in social entrepreneurship is about more than just parity in numbers of men and women in leadership roles. It also concerns the persistence of patriarchy in our institutional frameworks and our models of leadership.

In what ways is social entrepreneurship patriarchal? For starters, most funding, awards, and media attention still favor the lone hero entrepreneur who envisions a change and battles opposing forces to bring it about. As South African social entrepreneur Kristine Pearson, founder of Lifeline Energy, puts it: "A man who heads a nonprofit is considered heroic or enlightened, whereas I've been patronized numerous times as the charity worker."

Second, as social entrepreneur Iman Bibars points out in her 2018 Social Innovations Journal piece on women social entrepreneurs, "The prevailing model of social entrepreneurship considers impact according to a definition that favors male-dominated notions of broad impact through scaling out and franchising." In other words, social entrepreneurship still emphasizes scaling products or services through one increasingly powerful enterprise built by the entrepreneur, instead of through adaptation or replication by others.

Finally, there is the money issue: The vast majority of big private donors and impact investors are men who built their wealth following the business world's tried and true patriarchal logic. As the journalist Anand Giridharadas argued in his 2018 broadside against big philanthropy, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, the wealthy few have outsize influence and questionable motives over what they fund. This problem is also about women social entrepreneurs' access to funding. For example, in their "State of Social Entrepreneurship 2020" report, Echoing Green found that, among U.S. social entrepreneurs who apply for its fellowship, "male applicants tend to raise more funds than female applicants overall and on average, despite being a smaller proportion of the applicant pool."

To be sure, many traditional business approaches have their place in the ecosystem of social change. But if the social sector is going to tackle the biggest systemic problems, it needs to abandon its patriarchal slant and embrace more balanced leadership models.

New Leadership, New Models

Much of the research I've seen on women's leadership styles points us in very different directions for social entrepreneurship. For example, from their survey of sixty-four thousand people in thirteen countries representing a global spectrum of economies and cultures across five years, pollster John Gerzema and author Michael D'Antonio inventoried leadership traits most perceived as "feminine." These include collaboration, flexibility, patience, empathy, and future planning. Perceived male leadership traits, by contrast, include independence, analytical ability, pride, and decisiveness.

Even if we acknowledge the binary nature of these labels and the fact that they are often more about biases than inherent traits, we can see what attributes get most overlooked or undervalued compared with those most celebrated as "entrepreneurial." So, what might a more gender-balanced approach to funding, supporting, and practicing a social entrepreneurship system look like?

I think it would emphasize five things. First, it would embrace collaborative entrepreneurship, meaning that entrepreneurial approaches such as experimentation, iteration, and risk-taking are carried out by the community or group, which shares not only in the risks but also in the rewards — with credit for success shared rather than hoarded.

Second, greater gender balance in social entrepreneurship would reward those social entrepreneurs who emphasize scaling through adaptation or replication by others.

Third, it would be less hierarchal and more consultative and participatory. It would model itself more on the participatory forms of human-centered design, which have been successfully used in the social sector to enable communities challenged by social problems to create and refine their own solutions. 

Fourth, it would use longer-term investment and funding models following Acumen's patient capital model, which combines longer rates of financial return with a "social return" on investments, rather than traditional models that fixate on immediate return on investment.

Fifth, it would focus more on emergent approaches to organizational strategy that test various methods, abandon ones that don't work, and adapt toward the ones that do, instead of clinging to a master strategic plan formulated at the beginning.

Social entrepreneurship that embodies these attributes would be far better positioned to take on enduring, complex, collective threats such as climate change, economic inequality, and pandemics. Only by working systemically, by collaborating across silos supported by long-term funding schemes that are less tethered to short-term measurable impacts, can social entrepreneurs tackle systemic challenges.

From Heroic Scalers to Collective Impact

A more gender-balanced system of social entrepreneurship promises not only to be fairer but also to generate more impact. Our daunting, systemic social problems can only be solved collaboratively across silos, whether they be sectors, institutions, geographies, classes, or identities. Tackling poverty at a local or regional level, for instance, requires that government, health, education, business, and many other sectors work together.

Systemic approaches for tackling systemic problems depart significantly from traditional patriarchal approaches and reflect the "feminine" leadership styles I cited earlier. These systemic approaches have names such as collective impact, collaboration networks, and collective action. They create and nurture heterogeneous networks of organizations, agencies, individuals, and institutions, and apply their resources toward addressing a shared challenge or common concern. For example, the Central Appalachian Network (CAN) brings together multiple actors — including funders, governments, and civic organizations — to support community-based and sustainable economic development in a hundred and fifty central Appalachian counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. According to consultants and authors John Kania and Mark Kramer, collective impact initiatives must have strong, well-resourced backbone support organizations that staff and provide management support on behalf of all the collaborators.

Often these networks are predicated on systems thinking, which conceptualizes social or environmental problems as embedded within a complex and interdependent ecosystem that, in turn, requires more holistic and interdisciplinary approaches. My own work, first with the Ford Foundation's Global Public Innovation Network and later with the Melton Foundation's network of six hundred global citizenship fellows, New England International Donors' community of philanthropists who work across sectors and geographies, D-Lab's Practical Impact AllianceCatalyst 2030, and the Wellbeing Project’s Ecosystem Network, has entailed such approaches. These networks aggregate the diverse perspectives and expertise of many individuals, institutions, and communities, as well as sector expertise, for collective responses to systemic problems.

I suspect that the gender gaps I've discussed play a major role in explaining why the robust collaboration of systemic approaches remains largely more an ideal than an established practice. The more inclusive, horizontal, and interdisciplinary nature of these initiatives — their emphasis on the group instead of "a leader," their lack of speedy outcomes (what systemic change is immediate?), and their inability to establish a direct causal relationship between the network and systemic change — makes them unattractive to potential funders and collaborators who are still wedded to patriarchal ways of thinking.

Changing this patriarchal mindset will necessitate a cultural and structural shift toward more horizontal, consultative, and inclusive forms. As Sarah Kaplan and Jackie VanderBrug write in "The Rise of Gender Capitalism," their 2014 feature for Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Investing with a gender lens is about creating a new economic logic that bridges the market logic of financial returns with the feminist logic of women's equality...and changing processes, not simply working within them." 

The number of female social entrepreneurs and the attitudes that enable a more collective and systemic approach are both growing. In a 2018 Frontiers in Psychology paper, psychologists Andrea Vial and Jaime Napier conclude that "more stereotypically feminine leadership traits (i.e., communality) appear to have become more desirable over time...and some have claimed that these attributes will define the leader of the future." The authors worry, however, that these traits will remain "nice (but expendable)."

Major institutions that fund and support social entrepreneurship can take important steps to move away from a siloed, hypercompetitive, and patriarchal model of tackling the world’s daunting problems. First, funders should work together to invest more "patient capital" into backbone organizations and initiate more collaborative, cross-silo grants, convenings, and communications infrastructure focused on systemic problems. How about also creating new high-profile awards for groups instead of lone heroes? Imagine, for example, the "Schwab Award in Systemic Innovation" or the "Ashoka Collaboration Fellowship" awarded to groups of social innovators who cross silos.

More gender-balanced leadership will lead to more systemic approaches in social entrepreneurship. In such a scenario, not only do female social entrepreneurs thrive, but the world does, too. It's not simply about male or female approaches or attributes, but about tapping the full spectrum of human strengths and capabilities.

Winthrop Carty is founder of All Together Strategies and former executive director of the Melton Foundation. He also serves on the board of New England International Donors and has advisory roles with Empowered to Educate and Catalyst 2030.