THE AUTONOMOUS WOMAN ENTREPRENEUR IN TWO-CULTURAL SETTINGS
Harold P. Welsch, DePaul University Earl C. Young, DePaul University
As women are becoming more independent and starting their own businesses, it is interesting to investigate what
factors are associated with this autonomy. Do more autonomous women behave differently than less autonomous
women? What characteristics are associated with autonomous women entrepreneurs? How do autonomous women
entrepreneurs from different groups behave differently? Two groups of women entrepreneurs (n = 128, n = 55) from
the same geographic area, but with different cultural backgrounds were tested to see if culture played a significant role
in the relationships. Several major differences were found. Conclusions and implications are discussed.
In recent years the growth in the number of U.S. women entrepreneurs has been spectacular, from 1. 9 million owners
in 1977 to 3.7 million (28% of all U.S. businesses) in 1985. If this rate were to continue, by the year 2000, women
would own and operates approximately 50% of all U.S. businesses (37). Their influence is even more keenly felt in
service industries, the most rapidly growing segment of the economy, where women own the vast majority of the
businesses (37, p. 286).
At first, women entrepreneurs were concentrated in retail establishments, where they currently own fifty percent of the
businesses, and in service companies, where they own seventy-five percent of the firms (37, p. 286). They are now
entering non- traditional industries such as computers, information services, financial services and high technology
firms. While the numbers are impressive -- women are starting their own businesses at twice the rate of men--their
revenues lag substantially. Several factors have been cited to account for these lower revenues, including
discrimination, ineffective government programs designed for women, inadequate data to assist policy limit access to
credit, and lack of training, development and technical assistance.
However, the lack of growth in revenue and in other key dimensions of business success requires a more fundamental
explanation. It is not sufficient to cite external factors as being the major impediment to growth. The lack of growth is
at least equally likely to be due to the characteristics of the entrepreneur herself. From this perspective, it is possible to
formulate an equally impressive set of factors that explain the lack of growth and revenue. A partial listing of factors
might include, for example, a lack of business experience, and/or knowledge of
business discipline, limited objectives, a part-time effort; family obligations, lack of drive, commitment to the business,
and willingness to risk, and a preference for small scale operations.
Of these factors, one of the more fundamental to or embedded in the make-up of women entrepreneurs (or any
entrepreneur, for that matter) are those relating to personality characteristics. it is recognized that there is increasing
criticism of a trait approach to entrepreneurship, i.e., although valuable work in the area of vocational testing resulted,
the view, was largely one of a static individual in a static world (4, p. 394). However, the primary shortcomings of
personality trait analysis lie in the tendency to construct universal traits without sufficient regard to intervening
variables and the failure to design instruments which operationalize and unambiguously measure the initial construct.
With this reservation in mind, this paper focuses on a particular personality trait analysis as the starting point.
Accordingly the following research question can be formulated: What characteristic(s) of female entrepreneurs
correlate(s) significantly with key aspects of entrepreneurial activity? Considerable Montanari (32) reviewed the then
existing literature (31; 11; 25; 24; 34; 38; 13; 7; 8; 27; 26; 35) to narrow the list of traits relevant to entrepreneurial
research. The six personality characteristics they selected were achievement, autonomy, dominance, endurance, order,
and locus of control. Of these, they found support for autonomy in three of the studies they reviewed (11; 24; 36), as
well as for achievement in three (31; 25; 36). In this paper only autonomy was selected for more extensive analysis,
since it appeared to lead to new insights and understanding of the women entrepreneur, in view of the strides women
have made in shedding traditional roles, the women's literation movement, establishing new career paths, and creating
structures to enable them to realize these roles (i.e. , day care centers, female mentors, and professional networks) .
The Traditional View of Autonomy as It Relates to Entrepreneurship
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Autonomy has long been thought of as a major characteristic of entrepreneurs. The person who did not "fit into" the
corporate environment or who was resentful of the supervision and control of a possibly capricious boss often long
sought for the day that he or she could start their own business and not be under the "yoke" of someone else or a
bureaucratic "straitjacket." Shapero (38) describes the "uncomfortable,, entrepreneur who is dissatisfied with his or her
job or position, waiting for the chance to become "free" and start their own business. Collins and Moore (11) suggest
that the entrepreneurial personality is characterized by an unwillingness to submit to authority, an inability to work
with it and a consequent need to escape from it. The boss is seen as someone who must be rejected because he is a
'drunkard and a fool" (11, p. 69) who places him in situations of insecurity and danger. He thus abruptly cuts the
situation of his life and begins a new enterprise in which he can use his own energies to create a world
more tolerable to himself. "This world is his new business, and from it, he rigidly excludes all those superordinate
figures that have betrayed and injured him in the past" (11, p. 69). This behavior is based on Maslow's need for
autonomy which Collins and Moore define as "the condition of having full direction in one's life" (11, p. 251). Mescon
and Montanari (32) provide a list of adjectives which define a person with a high need for autonomy (see Table I
below). Schwartz (36) made one of the early studies identifying a high need for independence among women
entrepreneurs. More recently Chaganti (9) and Sexton and Bowman-Upton (37) utilized autonomy in describing
entrepreneurs in their research. Hills and Welsch (22) found a strong relationship between independence and
entrepreneurial intentions among 2000 university students.
Table I Characteristics of Autonomy
Description of High Scorer
Tries to break away from restraints, confinement, or restrictions of any kind; enjoys being unattached, free, not tied to
people, places, or obligations; may be rebellious when faced with restraints.
Defining Trait Adjectives
Unmanageable, free, self-reliant, independent, autonomous, rebellious, unconstrained, individualistic, ungovernable,
self-determined, non-conforming, uncompliant, undominated, resistant, lone-wolf.
The Evolution of Autonomy Among Women Entrepreneurs
The women entrepreneur is a fairly recent phenomenon which has only received concentrated attention since the
1970's. Earlier in the 19th and 20th century the "romanticist" version of the woman dominated which located her proper
sphere in the home and held her nature to encompass domesticity, selflessness, submissiveness, purity and piety (29).
Aldrich, et al (1) suggest that women are more likely than men to have access to a limited range of jobs, be shunted to
jobs with little chance of promotions to positions of significant responsibilities and to experience tokenism in upper
level jobs. Since women are expected to be more "caring," "self -less" and "passive," they are more likely to be tied to
the family, have limited work opportunities and have interrupted careers. When one also considers the "tokenism" of
women represented in executive positions, it is no small wonder that women turn to entrepreneurship with its enhanced
freedoms as a career. In a more recent article Berlin and Johnson (3) describe the traditional woman's lot to "preserve
the simple virtues, nurture her children, and soothe her husband by providing him with a haven from the heartless
world of industry and commerce" (3, p.
80). They contend the modern reconstitution of the woman question was to make "romantic woman" into a female
version of "economic man."
"All of the traits of nurturing and domesticity that had previously been viewed as constituting the essential nature of
woman were now seen as products of bad socialization that needed to be undone, leaving her free to 'do her own thing,'
e.g. dress for success, climb the corporate ladder, be assertive, and take responsibility only for herself" (3, p. 80).
The woman has sought out an independence and autonomy based on the concept that she is responsible to herself first
in a maturation process that emphasizes growth and development.
Given the growth in numbers of women entrepreneurs it is safe to say that among them are a substantial number with
independence-related characteristics. In fact, Sexton and Bowman-Upton (37) found that females scored significantly
higher on autonomy scales than men, utilizing a modified Jackson Personality Inventory and Personality Research
Form E test instrument. They concluded that growth oriented females tended to prefer ventures that provide new and
different experiences with fewer restrictions. Other studies suggest similar levels of autonomy between women and
men entrepreneurs (18; 21; 9; 17).
More recently, Reynold and Miller found "autonomy/independence" to be the major personal objective (44%) when
comparing it to "challenge/pursue idea" (22%) and "income/estate for family" (20%) among white females. These data
were quite similar for minorities and white males in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Hisrich (23) suggests that in contrast
to men, women entrepreneurs tend to be motivated by independence and achievement arising from job frustration
where they have not been allowed to advance and perform at a higher managerial level in spite of their capabilities.
The concept of autonomy or independence suggests some kind of detachment from individual's or groups around the
woman entrepreneur. This detachment can take place at several stages in the development and 'career life-cycle of an
individual. The first detachment can take place during adolescence and young adulthood when the young girl separates
herself from her family and establishes her own identity. The second detachment may take place on her job as she
recognizes that she needs to have more control over her destiny in her career and may leave a confining and limiting
position. The constraints upon her autonomy are often a motivating factor in starting her own business.
Miller (33) and Gilligan (15) stress the centrality of affiliation and interpersonal connections of women which they
contrast with autonomy, suggesting that they are at different poles conflicting with each other. By dichotomizing them,
they suggest that autonomy
has no meaning for women but is something beneath them, beyond them or unnatural to them. This is the view of
"hostile autonomy" (3) which reflects uncaring disconnection and as the degree of hostility increases, oblivious
insensitivity, neglect and abandonment. On the other hand, "friendly autonomy" represents respectful recognition of the
interests and abilities of the other and the self. Expressions of autonomy may lead to isolation, but not necessarily if the
person works to keep the lines of communication open, i.e. a person can still be autonomous. In fact, Berlin and
Johnson contend that ignoring autonomy can subvert relationships by eliminating their free, generous giving and
receiving aspects. Lack of autonomy can be harmful to relatedness in underscoring the absence of both freedom and
warmth when care giving takes place from a submissive position.
The Autonomous Hispanic Woman Entrepreneur
The concept of autonomy by itself is rather meaningless without identifying and documenting its context. This study
therefore attempts to identify those contextual factors which modify or are modified by the level of autonomy of
women entrepreneurs. In short since single trait analysis is inadequate by itself, it must be buttressed with a variety of
variables to see how autonomy works in conjunction with these. The variables include a variety of demographic,
psychological attitudinal items, small business problems and a variety of information sources utilized by the woman
entrepreneur. The model was tested among white women in a large industrial city. As a control for the major contextual
variable of culture, the same model was tested among a group of Hispanic women entrepreneurs from the same city.
The Hispanic women have been exposed to different culture and socialization backgrounds. This design is intended to
demonstrate that cultural forces impact differently within the two groups as they relate to autonomy.
Hispanic women had a slightly lower autonomy score (13.35) than non-Hispanics (15.09) but were not considered to be
significantly different from each other. Differences were expected to show up in behaviors and attitudes related to the
autonomy variable which represented the divergent cultural factors to which the groups were exposed. The research
questions are: "Are there significant differences in the factors which correlate with autonomy in different cultural
settings?" "What is the impact of entrepreneurial autonomy in two cultural settings?"
The concern in this study is more with finding hypotheses that can be further tested in greater detail taking into
consideration cultural and contextual variables rather than testing particular hypotheses as the final result.
In this study the primary set of cultural values which might be expected to modify relationships among selected
variables and autonomy relate to the still predominant traditional role of women. This traditional role is not unique to
any particular culture; at an earlier time many, if not most, U.S. women were strongly
influenced by these more narrowly-structured traditional mindsets.
In any case, it is postulated that U.S. Hispanic women entrepreneurs will be more likely to be influenced by the
following cluster of cultural predispositions which, in turn, would lessen the relationship with autonomy: - Dependence
on others for support. - Deference to males - especially macho males; subservience. - A reluctance to disagree. -
Acceptance of authority and the status quo. - Accommodation to existing arrangements. - Interdependent with others
for support. - Focussed on the primacy of the family
The impact of these cultural forces will be discussed in the analysis of results.
Individual and Contextual Factors Related to Autonomy
The model of the autonomous women entrepreneur is broken into two parts: 1) those factors which contribute to
autonomy, and 2) those factors which are affected by autonomy, as shown in Figure 1. Characteristics which contribute
to autonomy were chosen based on the fact that they are relatively stable, inherent and not necessarily under the control
of the woman entrepreneur. Factors being affected by autonomy were chosen on the basis of outcomes of a series of
entrepreneurial behaviors. These included the frequency of small business problems which the entrepreneur often had a
direct hand in creating, controlling and solving.
The second set of factors affected by autonomy was the selection of information sources which were made under the
deliberate control of the entrepreneur. It was felt that the entrepreneur had a greater freedom of choice and was able to
enact some discretionary behavior on the formation, identification, analysis and outcomes of these variables, i.e., they
were less "given" and "inevitable" than the initial factors which predict the occurrence of autonomy.
Of the demographic variables, age and experience in the field are expected to be positively related to autonomy. As the
women entrepreneur gains success and a heightened sense of achievement her options become more numerous. Her
independence is enhanced as she is able to pick and choose from a variety of business projects from which she is able
to identify the "plums" based on her expertise and experience. As she adds more employees, she is in a position to free
herself from delegatable tasks and is able to focus on activity where she is able to exercise her discretion. However,
adding additional family members to her staff may constrain or limit her autonomy especially if they feel that they have
"earned" the right to influence the entrepreneur. Therefore, it is expected that there is a negative relationship between
the number of family members working in the business and autonomy.
Figure 1 Autonomy
Perseverance Follow Work Schedule Engrossed
Demographic Age Field Experience Employees Added Family Members Working in Business
Problems Training Employees Diseconomics in Purchasing Heavy Expenses Poor Employee Attitudes
Risk Taking Seeking stimulation Gamble Provisions for retirement
Self Esteem I Feel Inadequate Need to Prove Worth
Information Sources Vendors Personal Associations Catalogues Newspapers Magazines Government
Affiliation Actively Seek Help My Own Way of Solving Problems
Trust Trust in Asking for Trouble Don't Tell Relatives Everything
Machiavellianism People Don't Work Unless Forced
Of the entrepreneurial characteristics, perseverance, risk taking, self-esteem and Machiavellianism are expected to be
positively related to autonomy. These are elements that allow the woman to work hard, take some calculated chances
and manipulate herself into a well respected position of accomplishment and achievement. Once in this position, she
can regard herself in a positive light in her
own mind and does not require others to reach her goal. In fact, she may shy away from adulation and honors from the
outside because she has already proven her selfworth to herself. As a result, she insulates herself from others and does
not seek them out for affiliation. As a self contained unit, the entrepreneur is not beholding to anyone and is confidant
that her way of solving problems is the best. In fact, she may distrust others as being less competent, resourceful and
envious of her success. Thus, it would be expected that there is a negative relationship between both need for affiliation
and trust with autonomy. The profile of this entrepreneur is thus of an experienced woman who has worked hard and
made something of herself and is now mistrustful of others who may want to attach themselves to her. She resists
relationships and remains independent.
Autonomy may also be the source of some problems that the woman entrepreneur encounters. Being somewhat
autonomous may be associated with a lower need to communicate with employees who may become resentful and
develop poor employee attitudes. If the entrepreneur does not communicate with her employees and spell out her
expectations in terms of telling them how to do their job, problems of training and development may arise. The
entrepreneur may feel that she is independent or aloof from her employees and insulates herself from them. This lack of
communication and information sharing can also lead to coordination problems and heavy operating expenses. Being
small and relatively independent, the entrepreneur may be unwilling to cooperate with other owners to take advantage
of economies of scale in purchasing larger lots at lower prices. Her independence thus prevents her from entering into
these cooperative arrangements. Overall, a positive relationship is expected between autonomy and the frequency of
these problems described.
Being more detached and insulated from others, the autonomous entrepreneur will most likely not be receptive to
various information sources available. She may be satisfied with her current method of operation and outcomes and
reject these information sources as an interference or disturbance to her peace of mind, freedom or mode of thinking.
Three-hundred and thirty-three (333) non-Hispanic women business owners who were members of a large business
women's organization, were surveyed, and 150 responded (response rate - 45%). Minor omissions on the returned
questionnaires reduced the number of usable responses to 128. A variety of types of businesses in a large midwestern
city were surveyed, including retail, distributor/wholesaler, manufacturing, and service.
Fifty-five Hispanic women entrepreneurs were administered the questionnaire in person. Thirty-one of those were
preceded by structured and unstructured interviews and six of the respondents to the questionnaire were also included
in a focus group. These
additional research activities were conducted to explore the business environment and cultural background of Hispanic
entrepreneurs in greater detail to provide additional insight and understanding in the interpretation of the analysis of
The means of demographic variables for the two samples are shown in Table 2. The profiles of the two sample groups
are remarkably similar with respect to age and experience in the same field. However, non-Hispanics have on the
average a higher level of education and more years of business. In both groups fifty percent of the entrepreneurs had
fathers who were entrepreneurs, while the Hispanics had a higher proportion of entrepreneurial mothers. Hispanics also
had a higher proportion of ownership, but lower ratio of family members (full time) in the business.
The ratio of family members in the business part-time and the ratio of family members in the business is about equal in
the two groups. More employees were added and dropped in the non-Hispanic firms indicating a higher level of
mobility but not necessary growth and development. Percent of equity in both samples is very high and about equal. In
summary there are general similarities in the two samples, but with large differences in some of the contextually driven
The key variable "autonomy" was measured using five indicators to form a scale. These indicators were developed by
Steers and Braunstein (40) and have an Alpha Cronbach of .699. Since the emphasis in this paper is on how autonomy
itself is differentially impacted in two cultural settings, other psychological variables were measured using only
individual item indicators. This helped to insure sensitivity to the cultural values that impact on autonomy. In contrast,
macrolevel variables focus on psychological variables per se. The sources of these micro-level scales (indicators) is as
follows: Risk taking Self-esteem (2) Affiliation (40) Perseverance (19) Trust (28) Machiavellianism (10)
Small business problems were identified primarily from an analysis of 300 cases counseled in a Small Business
Institute as well as from the business literature (14; 20; 41; 42). The sources of information utilized by entrepreneurs
were identified by the authors. These sources were categorized as follows: consultants, vendors, personal, association,
catalog, newspaper, magazine, and government institutions.
The Statistical Package of the Social Sciences was used in analyzing the data (1988).
Surprisingly, opposite results occurred between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic women (see Table 3). The predicted
relationship held for Hispanic women (older/more autonomous) but not for non-Hispanic women. The younger women
among non-Hispanics apparently feel more freedom and autonomy. Respect for age may be more prevalent in the
Hispanic culture. Similarly, less experienced non-Hispanic women feel more autonomous, i.e., they may have more
choices and alternatives careerwise than their more experienced counterparts. As Hispanic women add more employees
and family members to their business, they experience more autonomy. The Hispanic entrepreneur is in a position of
enhanced autonomy now that additional human resources are at her disposal, even if they are family members.
Table 2 Demographics of the Two Samples
Non-Hispanic Hispanic Women Women N=128 N=55 -------------------------------------------------------------------
Age 38.45 38.44 Education 16.00 12.71 Years of experience in field 10.70 10.20 Years of business experience 13.90
11.15 Father an entrepreneur 64 (50%) 27 (50%) Mother an entrepreneur 51 (40%) 19 (65%) No. of firms as equity
0.43 0.74 Employees added in past year 2.20 0.32 Employees dropped in past year 2.21 0.34 Family members/full-time
0.73 0.26 Family members/part-time 0.46 0.42 Family members as investors 0.46 0.52 % of Ownership 84.00 87.31
Table 3 Pearson Correlation of Predictors of Autonomy
Non-Hispanic Hispanic Women Women N=128 N=55
DEMOGRAPHIC VARIABLES ------------------------------------------------------------------ Age -.177* .302* Years of
Field Experience -.150* .062* Number of Employees Added in the Previous Year -.135 .225* Number of Full Time
Employees -.113 .269*
ENTREPRENEURIAL CHARACTERISTICS ------------------------------------------------------------------- Perseverance
Follow a Work Schedule Carefully -.069 .219* Often Become Wrapped Up in Work .146* .211 Risk Taking Risking
New Experience in Search for Stimulation .150* -.107 Risk Money for Sheer Excitement of Gambling .222** .041
Don't Make Provisions for Retirement Early .163* .258* Self-Esteem Feel Inadequate to Handle New Situations (R)(1)
-.014 -.270* Need to Prove Worth and Excellence .207** -.211 Affiliation Actively Seek Help From Others -.306*** -
.191 My Own Way Is Best (R)(2) .209** .052 Trust Completely Trusting Is Asking for Trouble (R)(1) -.262** -.333**
Don't Let Relatives Know Everything (R)(1) -.282*** - .285** Machiavellianism People Don't Work Hard Unless
Forced .200** -.020
------------ (R)(1)=Needs to be Reverse Coded (R)(2)=Reverse Coded Prior to Computerization
*=P less than or equal to .05 **=P less than or equal to .01 ***=P less than or equal to .001
Hispanic women that follow a work schedule feel more autonomous. Perhaps this schedule allows them to do other
things and enjoy additional advantages. Non-Hispanic women who often become wrapped up in their work feel more
autonomous perhaps because they chose to become more engrossed in this manner, i.e., they love their work and pursue
it as a matter of personal choice.
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