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Does Gender Matter? A Feminist Exploration of the Financial Performance of Social Enterprise Open Access

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Social enterprises are businesses that intentionally pursue social value creation through earned-income strategies. A growing body of research suggests that women may be prone toward the social aspects of social enterprise such as aiding disadvantaged groups, contributing to local communities, and other mission-driven initiatives. Also, empirical research suggests that women may be motivated toward, conduct, and measure business success differently than men – with emphasis on social impact rather than profit alone. Little is known about the financial performance of social enterprise from a gender perspective. Historically, women-owned commercial businesses (i.e., “traditional” businesses) in the U.S. have lagged men’s in key economic indicators: ownership, revenue, and size. Deeper inquiry reveals that issues related to gender – not just biological sex – help explain these disparities. The theories of entrepreneurial expectancy and social learning suggest that women-owned businesses can perform as well as men’s, but external feedback from people, personal experiences, and other forces (e.g., media, society, and industry demographics) undermine women’s confidence and hinder them from achieving financial goals. My dissertation is a first step toward understanding if these same patterns hold for for-profit social enterprises. Through feminist methodology, this mixed-methods study uses survey data and semi-structured in-depth interviews to discover the distribution of U.S.-based for-profit social enterprises owned by women or men, whether gender matters to their financial performance, and how gender may matter. Findings reveal far more similarities than differences between the financial performances of women- and men-owned social enterprises, and that gender may not matter to the financial performance of social enterprise as much as commercial enterprise. However, significant differences indicate that gender may matter in three areas: ownership, profits, and priorities; and that women-owned social enterprises perform better than men-owned social enterprises in several areas, including average annual revenue, financial expectations and preferences, and number of employees. Exploration of the gender/business literature suggests that these differences may be explained by gender-related issues such as women’s lack of financial resources, work-life balance, and the effects of mentors and role models, among others. The study concludes with potential limitations; implications to policy, practice, and theory; and recommendations for future research.

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