ArtisanWomen’s entrepreneurship is a major focus of many development agencies and funders. Touted as a powerful tool for development, it is purported to do multiple things at once: give women more access to income and help them break the cycle of poverty, grow national economies, and advance gender equality both at the household and community level. The emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship as a tool of development has been particularly pervasive in Africa, where there is a long history of women as traders and where poverty interventions are frequently focused.

Despite these development efforts, a stubborn gap persists between the profits earned by women entrepreneurs and their male counterparts in Africa. Even after controlling for firm characteristics like sector and degree of formalization and personal characteristics such as education and age, researchers have found that male entrepreneurs on average earn 23% more than women.

While many constraints undoubtably contribute to the gendered profit gap, the assumption underlying these studies is that profit and other traditional definitions of business success are the goals of women entrepreneurs. My research seeks to uncover the full range of motivations that guide women’s decision-making. I hypothesize that, while profits are certainly important to women entrepreneurs, other goals or values may also motivate their decision-making.

My dissertation research asks three interconnected questions:
First, what motivates women entrepreneurs as they make business decisions?
Second, how do differently positioned women prioritize these motivations? Under what circumstances does profit-maximization outweigh other motivations, and vice-versa?
And third, how does national and cultural context influence women entrepreneurs’ business motivations and decision-making?

My research takes seriously the role of cultural context in women’s entrepreneurship. Much of the literature on women’s entrepreneurship, growing out of the fields of economics and business management, assumes that individual entrepreneurs will make decisions according to a rational model that can be universalized across contexts. I assume instead that women entrepreneurs are socially situated actors whose motivations, decisions and actions are contingent upon various norms, opportunities, and constraints within their communities. As such, my research adopts a comparative approach to draw out the role of context, exploring women entrepreneurs in two country contexts – Uganda and Ethiopia – that share many socio-economic similarities but vary in cultural and political histories.