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Studies on threats to female entrepreneurs investigate human aspects of business

Business decisions take emotions into account, say researchers

Janaína Vieira

The 2014 World Cup was seen as a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs across Brazil interested in selling their products in the tournament’s stadiums. For psychologist Vânia Maria Jorge Nassif, of the Study Center for Sports Management and Entrepreneurship of Nove de Julho University (UNINOVE), in São Paulo, the opportunity was somewhat different: investigating the motivations and projects of these small-business owners during the main competition on the soccer calendar.

In the 24 interviews with the businesspeople, selected after indication by professors from local universities and published in the e-book Negócios empreendedores: Ameaças e superações no entorno das arenas esportivas (Entrepreneurial businesses: threats and overcoming adversity in the surroundings of sports arenas; Pixel, 2016), a recurring response caught the attention of Nassif and her colleagues. “All of them, without exception, complained of a strong feeling of being under threat,” she recalls. What they feared most was losing their business, for numerous reasons: from the country’s macroeconomic conditions to a natural catastrophe. One of those interviewed reported losing the concession for a public space due to corruption.

“The affective-emotive nature of the concerns was crystal-clear,” says Nassif. The researcher noticed that, among the women, not only the sense of threat was more severe, but there were also dangers specifically linked to gender. Nassif began developing a typology of the threats, focusing on the women, seeking to understand how the female entrepreneurs feel that their business is at risk and which behaviors they develop to overcome the threats.

The differential of the concept of threat, highlights the professor from UNINOVE, in relation to similar ideas such as “challenges,” “barriers,” or “obstacles,” is emphasizing affective aspects of entrepreneurship, beyond rationality. “Affectivity and cognition are inseparable. I cannot feel without thinking or think without feeling. But scientific studies dedicate little space to emotional issues, which are also rarely taken into account by companies,” she says.

In the international literature, the theme of emotions has gained some traction in the past decade, according to the study “Emotion in the area of entrepreneurship: An analysis of research hotspots,” published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Between 1995 and 2010, there were 2.27 articles identified per year dealing with emotions in entrepreneurship. The number jumped to 14.7 between 2011 and 2016. There were 44 in 2017 and 2018; there were 66 in 2019; and in 2020 alone there were 103. In the assessment of one of the authors, economist Xingqun Lv, of Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, China, the increase reflects the finding that successful entrepreneurs frequently attribute their positive results to emotional involvement with the business.

Although it is a growing movement, it cannot be said that emotion in entrepreneurship is a consolidated theme, according to administrator Tales Andreassi, vice director of the School of Business Administration of the Getulio Vargas Foundation of São Paulo (EAESP-FGV). “For a long time, studies on entrepreneurship overlooked this issue to focus on the technical side: business plans, planning, cause-and-effect relationships. More recently, it was realized that other aspects should also be taken into account, and from there the issue of affection and emotion came in,” she explains.

Janaína VieiraNassif distinguished four classes of threat faced by female entrepreneurs. The most general, which also affect the men, is that of “business threats.” These are divided into “Brazil risk,” “threats of the sector,” and “management threats” and within them come problems that range from legislation changes, financial crises, and foreign exchange variations to the relationship with bureaucracy and informality, including access to funding, human resource difficulties, and insolvency. The classes of threats linked to gender are those of patriarchy (harassment, sexism, prejudice), the affective ones (insecurity in relation to competence, hostile social environments), and the conflict of roles, which include issues related to matrimony (children, husbands) and work overload (the double shift of those who look after the home and the business, prejudice linked to age).

Once the typology was established, the task moved to creating a scale to quantify it, Nassif reports. With the help of the Network of Women Entrepreneurs and the Women’s Network of Brazil, a questionnaire was sent to 1,200 female entrepreneurs across the country. The women were invited to evaluate the prejudice they suffer, their relationship with the family, the business environment, and the working conditions. A selection of the reports was published in the e-book Mulheres transformadoras: Empreendedoras e seus negócios (Transformational women: Female entrepreneurs and their businesses; ECO, 2018). “The answers differ greatly between regions. What the women in São Paulo say is not the same as in the South or Midwest, for example. But one unanimous answer relates to patriarchy: they all experience situations of harassment,” says Nassif.

Although as many women open businesses nowadays as men, according to the study Empreendedorismo feminino no Brasil em 2022 (Female entrepreneurship in Brazil in 2022; SEBRAE), they are still the minority: 10,344,858 women, to 19,690,601 men. The average incomes also show a great inequality: in September last year, it was R$2,737 for men and R$2,360 for women. Explaining the discrepancy is one of the tasks of the studies about female entrepreneurs, a field of research in expansion in Brazil. In 2016, researcher Jane Mendes Ferreira, of the Sector of Applied Social Sciences of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), did a survey of academic publications in the country dedicated to the theme between 2000 and 2015 and found 56 articles of a diverse nature. The authors observed a growing trend for publications: between 2000 and 2005 there were 9 articles (16.1% of the total), but 31 were released between 2011 and 2015, or 55.3%.

Ferreira argues that an update of the study would show that the expansion continues to accelerate. “Although it is still not a large group of researchers, there is more and more interest in the study of female entrepreneurship. The congresses always have sessions dedicated to the theme and articles are constantly being published,” affirms Ferreira. “This group works to promote and improve female entrepreneurship, including in partnership with public and private institutions,” she adds.

In these two decades, the studies have documented the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs. In the literature, they are divided into three categories: individual (linked to psychological and family themes), organizational (the functioning of the business), and environmental (legislation and regulation). At the individual level, the need to reconcile family and professional life, for example, appears most acutely among women than among men. When approached from an affective-emotive perspective, these problems are presented as threats. Nassif points out that even some universal threats have a greater burden on women. It is the case of access to funding: the interviewees complained that the mere fact of being women reduced the likelihood of receiving approval for a bank loan. Nassif adds that the barrier could be overcome through public policies aimed at women. “We are way behind in this field. The policies for female entrepreneurs are scarce,” she laments.

Explaining the discrepancy of income between men and women is one of the tasks of the studies about female entrepreneurs

The researcher studied the manner in which the female entrepreneurs responded to the threats, calling the responses “overcoming behaviors.” The interviewed women repeatedly complained of the concern with learning and reacting to situations of pressure, the search for resolution dialogue for conflicts, as well as seeking support on contact networks. Nassif found a correspondence between the types of threat and the overcoming behaviors. One example is turning to the support of male family members and friends when dialogue with men is necessary, whether suppliers, customers, or financial backers. “When selling a product, they call their brother or husband to accompany them in the negotiations. The simple presence of a man changes the interlocutor’s attitude, and this allows the female entrepreneur to feel empowered in a hostile environment. Many refer to the ‘vigor’ of men, which led my team to talk in terms of the ‘network of male vigor,'” she observes.

The affective angle in entrepreneurship is a field of research with many paths yet to be explored. “The entrepreneur makes choices all the time, because the business world is made of decisions. But decision-making is not a totally rational attitude, as we like to think it is. It is deeply linked to memory and emotions: our most vivid memories are marked by emotions,” says Ferreira. According to the researcher, losing the capacity to be emotional is losing the capacity to decide. “If someone suffers a lesion in the region of the brain responsible for emotions, they can produce a list with the advantages and disadvantages of any choice, and still remain indecisive. Studying emotions is essential for understanding business decisions.”

Andreassi further adds that there are still few entrepreneurship courses that explore emotional issues, but the theme appears in the theory of effectuation, developed by Saras Sarasvathy, of the University of Virginia, in the USA. “She recommends that, when starting a business in unknown areas, making plans and forecasts is not enough. It is more important to connect with people and find partners for the operation, always being open to exploring the contingencies that will affect the business. In this context, affective burden stands out in relation to rational technique,” she observes.

Ferreira studies the affective-emotive aspect of the work of Brazilian female entrepreneurs through the prism of subjectivity, meaning the manner in which they see and think about their business activity, based on the theory of subjectivity of Cuban psychologist Fernando González Rey (1949–2019). Her current project investigates the potential of female entrepreneurship in overcoming domestic violence, in partnership with Victor Rodrigo Amaral, a master’s student on the graduate program in Management of Organizations, Leadership and Decision, and captain of the Military Police in the state of Paraná. The project consists of setting up a distance education program that enables the victims to open a business and, with this, overcome the insecurity caused by the daily aggressions.

The idea came about from the student’s amazement at discovering that 7.5% of all the emergency phone calls received by the corporation were about aggression against women by their husbands, a rate almost three times higher than the Brazilian average, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (FBSP). Amaral observed that, in 2020, in the Metropolitan Region of Curitiba and on the coast of Paraná, 18,630 calls (9.1%) put domestic violence as the second highest occurrence, after breach of the peace. “Only 19% of these calls ended up as domestic violence occurrences. After the police arrive at the location, the situation is classified in another manner, or the crime is not verified,” informs Amaral.

“When asked why they don’t leave their spouses, the victims respond that they cannot support themselves alone. Asked why they don’t work for themselves; they express the conviction that they are not capable. Behind this response, is not the lack of qualification specifically, but the loss of self confidence in their own ability, which originates in the abuse,” says Ferreira. “The physical violence is just part of domestic violence. These women suffer from psychological aggression, which affects who they think they are, and what they believe they can do. Thus, it makes up their subjectivity. This fear and this certainty prevent them from freeing themselves.”

Besides the source of income, the expectation with the creation of the distance education program is that the opening of a business transforms the vision of the beaten women about themselves. “Human subjectivity has great plasticity. It is possible to break the cycle of humiliation and make them see themselves as capable people, understanding that they can support themselves with their own work,” says the professor from UFPR.

The practical purpose is also a component of the typology of threats, according to Nassif. “Our intention is to take the methodology, with the scale of threats, to the entrepreneur training programs. Although the scale focuses on women, we have developed a version that captures the threats experienced by men,” she says. In parallel, the typology and the quantification of the threats also has the objective of influencing public policies focused on women, which the researcher considers insufficient. “If we have a Ministry of Women, it is fundamental that there are policies that promote their entrepreneurship,” argues Nassif.

The influence of gender threats and overcoming behavior on job and family satisfaction among female entrepreneurs (nº 19/10009-1); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Vânia Maria Jorge Nassif (Uninove); Investment R$67,823.34

Scientific articles
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BUARIDE, A. et al. Barreiras ao empreendedorismo por mulheres. Revista de Empreendedorismo e Gestão de Micro e Pequenas Empresas. Vol. 7, no. 1. 2022.
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LU, X. et al. Emotion in the area of entrepreneurship: An analysis of research hotspots. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 13. 2022.
NASSIF, V. et al. Influência das ameaças de gênero e comportamento de superação na satisfação de empreendedoras. Future Studies Research Journal: Trends and Strategies, Vol. 12, no. 3. 2020.

NASSIF, V. M. J. Mulheres transformadoras: Empreendedoras e seus negócios. São Paulo: ECO Editorial, 2018.
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