Female Entrepreneurs Face Obstacle Course of Challenges

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Translation: Ásdís Sól Ágústsdóttir

Female entrepreneurs in Iceland face many obstacles because of their gender, says Snæfríður Jónsdóttir. Snæfríður graduated from the University of Iceland with a BS in Business Administration just over a year ago and wrote her final project about female entrepreneurs, specifically the personality traits they exhibit, the opportunities available to them, and the obstacles they encounter. She conducted a study that involved speaking with a number of women who have been involved in entrepreneurial endeavors in one way or another.

“I was very interested in the entrepreneurial scene in Iceland and became even more interested after I went to a Young Professional Women in Iceland (Ungar athafnakonur) meeting hosted by Icelandic Startups. They had a panel discussion about women in entrepreneurship. Of course, this is a very prominent issue in the university community, especially among business students, and I knew there were fewer women in the field and wanted to explore the reasons behind that.”

Snæfríður says a lot of people believe it’s the brave risk-taker types who become entrepreneurs. “I wanted to research whether there were specific personality types, or if it was a diverse group of individuals. I also wanted to know whether there was a gender-based difference, if people’s individual qualities correspond to their gender.”

Snæfríður found out that entrepreneurs’ character qualities vary more by individual than by gender. “These results are certainly something I could have imagined going into this, but nevertheless I found it exciting to research. On the other hand, individuals are shaped by different background and attitudes. For example, women are less likely to be taken seriously, or they have to prove themselves more than their male counterparts in the same environment, and therefore their more feminine qualities might be a bit repressed.”

Snæfríður says her research has confirmed the character traits of entrepreneurs that are so often mentioned in academic articles and writings. “It matched up well with what I saw in my interviews. The primary quality is having a passion for what you’re doing, really believing in your idea. Then initiative and drive, largely because the whole ordeal is not very easy - coming up with an idea, getting it going, keeping it up and believing in it. You really need to believe in yourself and your idea, and it requires a great deal of perseverance just to stick it out, because there will always be something standing in your way. You also have to be ready to make mistakes, get back up and carry on.”

Iceland has often been linked to high levels of gender equality, and Snæfríður says that opportunities for female entrepreneurs here are certainly greater than in other countries. “We are pretty close to the top when it comes to equality, meaning there are a lot of opportunities out there, but we still have to work on making women more visible somehow and helping them progress in the entrepreneurial world.

“We have a support network, we have special scholarships for women, we have platforms such as Icelandic Startups, which has launched a campaign called “No Obstacles” specifically to get more women to participate in the Golden Egg business plan competition, so it’s definitely being discussed. We still need more female entrepreneurs to step forward, but things are clearly moving in the right direction.”

With regard to specific obstacles female entrepreneurs face, Snæfríður mentions first and foremost their lack of visibility. “When I was selecting people to interview, I was relatively quick to list all the women I could think of. I actually thought I was too quick, and I immediately started wondering if that was really all of them. I would like to see more female entrepreneurs, and most of the people I interviewed agreed with me that a lack of role models is part of the problem. It makes such a difference when you can see a woman doing something and then think to yourself, why shouldn’t I also be able to do that?”

But a lack of role models is not the only obstacle female entrepreneurs face. “Other obstacles include access to funding, for example. Although it’s a challenge for all entrepreneurs, it’s a larger challenge for females. Based on the interviews I conducted and what I’ve read, the investment world is very male-dominated, and it’s more difficult for women to gather funding.

“It’s difficult to deduce whether people in the investment business are doing this consciously or unconsciously, but based on my interviewees’ experience, it’s a very male-dominated environment, and women have to work a lot harder to prove themselves, much more so than their male counterparts, and I give some examples of this in my essay,” says Snæfríður. Her essay also mentions the difficulties female entrepreneurs sometimes have balancing their careers with family life.

Female entrepreneurs who work with products or services that society has deemed “feminine” may be even worse off than their colleagues. “One of my interviewees founded a company that manufactures herbal medicine. She realized that people found it to be incredibly feminine, so she was taken less seriously. She really encountered people who thought she was just always outside picking flowers, when in fact she’s a professional in the pharmaceutical business. I also find it peculiar that anything delicate and beautiful is always considered feminine, never masculine.”

This particular interviewee found herself in rather strange situations whenever she would meet investors. “This woman told me how she arranged meetings with investors who weren’t really on board with her ideas and weren’t ready to work with her. However, when they went home, they spoke to their wives and heard from them that her idea was, in fact, very clever. They would even show up to investment meetings with their wives a week later. She found this to be very odd, and this isn’t exactly the reaction one would like to get from investors. This particular company is very prominent today and is, in my opinion, one of the finest examples of innovation among Icelandic businesses today.”

Snæfríður says she is very grateful for having had the chance to conduct this research. “This essay matters a whole lot to me, and writing it was very enlightening. It’s incredibly important that women have a place in the workforce and in this particular environment because innovation is so valuable for societies, for economic growth and more. We also need these role models too. I am very thankful for having met my interviewees, heard their stories, and been able to pass them on in some way.”

Snæfríður says it’s important to have a diverse flora of people involved in entrepreneurship in this country, and she said it surprised her to find out how many obstacles her interviewees have dealt with in their careers. “The attitudes some of these women have encountered really surprised me, because I look at them in awe and consider them to be role models.

“It’s a bit shocking to hear the sort of attitudes people have towards these women. Even though their experiences don’t reflect the reality of each and every female entrepreneur, these things really did happen, and I think it’s bad enough that they’ve faced all these obstacles, strange comments and/or a lack of faith in their ideas.”