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The Social Construction of the “Chick” Entrepreneur

Sara Blakely

[The text below is a transcript of this video segment of CNBC’s Small Business Town Hall (2012). Please allow a few seconds for the ad to play to hear the entire conversation, which lasts about one minute.]

Kevin O’Leary: 

I don’t know where we got lost, and we’re all singing Kumbaya these days. But let me tell you how it works. Business is war. You get up in the morning and you figure out how do I KILL my competitor, how do I pour boiling oil on him. That’s how you do it. That’s what made, that’s what made America great, competing, fighting, competing, winning.

Sara Blakely:

 I completely disagree. When I first cut the feet out of my pantyhose, I was at a cocktail party, three men came up to me and said, “You know, Sara, business is war.” And I went home that night and sat on the floor of my apartment and I was like, “I don’t want to go to war. Why does it have to be war?” I have not taken that approach, and I’ve done it very differently. I have not been obsessed and focused on the competition, annihilating the competition, I have only been focused on my own quality, what can I offer that’s the best and give value. (CNBC, 2012)

The world of business has historically been considered male, “and not only male, but lean, hungry, predatory and hostile” (Gupta, Turban, Wasti, & Sikdar, 2009, p. 400).  Kevin O’Leary’s assertion (above) that “business is war” seems completely congruent with that notion. However, there was very little Kevin O’Leary could say when Sara Blakely countered that she completely disagreed that “business is war.” Blakely, founder of Spanx, is the youngest women to make the Fortune billionaires list at age 41, and she owns 100% of her company, never having taken a dollar of investor money (O’Connor, 2012).  Sara Blakely represents one of many successful entrepreneurial women who are attempting to create a new identity for business and entrepreneurial leadership. Twelve years and billions of dollars into a non-warlike business approach, even the most warmongering entrepreneurial advocate can’t deny that Blakely is onto something with her alternative approach.

The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, estimates that “there are over 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States, generating over $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7.8 million people” (American Express Open, 2013, p. 2).Women in the United States continue to launch businesses at 1.5 times the rate of men, and over the past 16 years the growth rates in the number, employment, and revenues of women-owned companies have exceeded the growth rates of all but the largest, publicly traded firms. However, while growth rates are on the rise, actual hiring and revenue numbers aren’t nearly as impressive, with the research finding that “women-owned firms only employ 6% of the country’s workforce and contribute just under 4% of business revenues” (American Express Open, 2013, p. 2).

Why aren’t the impressive growth rates of women-owned business translating into higher revenues? Certain research suggests that the types of businesses and the business goals women have aren’t compatible with high growth businesses, meaning, women may not want big, revenue producing ventures (Morris, Miyasaki, Watters, & Coombes, 2006). However, a more disturbing suggestion comes from research indicating that “societal myths regarding women entrepreneurs” (Morris et al., 2006, p. 222), a lack of high achieving female entrepreneurial role models, and the perception, especially by financial institutions, that women are not serious about business growth and lack the leadership skills necessary for management of large scale ventures are contributing to a gender-based deficit in access to resources and funding for women-owned firms (Morris et al., 2006).

So what’s an entrepreneurial woman to do? Is the solution to adopt a “masculine” perspective on business and “go to war,” or is there another way? A growing number of advocates for female entrepreneurship have begun promoting Sara Blakely and her ‘make business not war’ attitude as a role model, promoting a “feminine approach” to business (Colligan & Schoenfeldt, 2005, p. 13). Rather than present female-gendered entrepreneurial identity as a detriment, these organizations and thought leaders are promoting the feminine approach as an equally good, if not better, way of doing business (Colligan & Schoenfeldt, 2005). I propose that, the search is on for a new entrepreneurial identity, and that we are witnessing the social construction of the “woman entrepreneur.” This identity, like all socially constructed identities, will have many expressions, and I in no way intend to generalize one, comprehensive female entrepreneurial identity (Morris et al., 2006). Therefore, for this project, I intend to explore how woman are attempting to (re)negotiate one sort of female entrepreneurial identity in the face of the historically and culturally “maleness” of entrepreneurship by embracing the ideology of “chick culture” (Ferris & Young, 2007). Specifically, I will examine one example of the communication of this new identity by conducting an analysis of a text aimed at a female entrepreneurial audience that advocates (and markets services related to) entrepreneurship for women,

Marie Forleo website

For this blog post, I will review a selection of literature on the social construction of organizational and gendered identity, concluding with the role this project plays in the ongoing academic discussion. Theoretical framework and methodology are explored in the document stalcupangela_theoryandmethod_122013 (click link to access). The analysis, discussion, and implications will be discussed in follow up digital presentation.

Note: There is a growing body of research on the nature of non-Western female entrepreneurship, examining female entrepreneurs in non-Western countries as well as the female immigrant experience of entrepreneurship. Further, some researchers are beginning to suggest the need for greater research into issues of race and Western female entrepreneurs. For this project, I’ll be looking at messages and discourse aimed at a Western, English-speaking, female audience (US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia).

 Literature Review

A survey of the literature selected for this project identifies four themes of interest related to the social and cultural influences shaping female entrepreneurial identity: the social construction of individual, gender, organizational, and entrepreneurial identity; organizations and entrepreneurship as “male” gendered; female entrepreneurship as a resistant act; the construction of female entrepreneurial identity by popular culture. The social construction of individual identity and gender are well-established in the literature, with “identity” existing, not as a monolithic, unchanging trait, but as a multiplicity of intersecting and often conflicting “identities” (Allen, 2005; Ashcraft, 2004; Gupta et al., 2009; Morris et al., 2006; Phillips & Knowles, 2012). Research has extended the social construction of gender identity to “organizations as principle sites of…construction” (Allen, 2005, p. 41), and organizations have been identified as “gendered” male (Ashcraft, 2004). Just as gender and organizational identity, entrepreneurship is its own version of an organizational identity, and it, too, is gendered male (Gupta et al., 2009; Morris et al., 2006; Phillips & Knowles, 2012). Feminist scholars have proposed that female entrepreneurship is a resistant act “with specific intentions to overcome the typical masculine organization and the capitalist society that supports it” (Morris et al., 2006, p. 227). Finally, research suggests that dominant discourses related to the social construction of work identity in general, and female entrepreneurial identity specifically, can be found through an examination of the texts of popular culture and success literature (Allen, 2005; Ashcraft, 2004; Phillips & Knowles, 2012).

Much of the research on “gender identity as organizational performance” (Eisenberg et al., 2010, p. 183) is drawn from the work of Judith Butler. Butler (1990) proposes that an identity is something a person “does” rather than something the person “is” (as cited in Phillips & Knowles, 2012). Allen (2005) and Ashcraft (2004) both locate gender performance in organizations, with Ashcraft suggesting that “doing gender at work” (as cited in Eisenberg et al., 2010, p. 195) is in a constant state of negotiation through the routine microperformances of the individual. Phillips and Knowles (2012) extend Butler’s “doing” of gender to entrepreneurship, asserting that “entrepreneurship is performative, a matter of doing or becoming and of taking up entrepreneurial subjectivity” (p. 421). Ashcraft also builds on the work of Joan Acker, suggesting that “organizations are themselves gendered structures that reflect and produce patriarchy or the systemic privileging of masculinity” (as cited in Eisenberg et al, 2010, p. 187). Gupta et al. (2006) and Morris et al. (2009) extend the gendered nature of organizations to entrepreneurship, suggesting that entrepreneurship is a “gendered profession” (p. 409), generally perceived as masculine and “inconsistent with the feminine stereotype (p. 400). Morris et al. further suggest that “self-created, feminine-gendered businesses” (p. 227) can be framed as acts of resistance to patriarchal systems and an attempt to “meet the needs of women” (p. 227) not served by the masculine ideology of traditional business organizations.  In an attempt to find alternative narratives, Ashcraft explores the role of popular culture as a source of gendered narratives, and Phillips and Knowles extend the “interpreting of [fictions in] popular culture… [as] as a way of understanding the social phenomena of organization, organizing, and organizers” (pp. 416-417) to gender and entrepreneurship.

As a means of extending the current academic conversation on the construction of female entrepreneurial identity, I propose an examination of a text that reflects the intersection of gendered narratives of popular culture and female entrepreneurship as an act of resistance to the perceived “maleness” of entrepreneurial identity. To that end, I conducted an ideological analysis of a text aimed at a female entrepreneurial audience,  With an active, paid community of 6000 members and an email reach of nearly 200,000 (All About, 2013), Marie Forleo’s message clearly has an appeal to a particular target audience of women business owners (and those aspiring to become business owners). The textual analysis examines how is using the language of popular “chick culture” to create an alternative narrative to the male gendered discourse of entrepreneurship, and how this text is contributing to the construction of the “chick” entrepreneur.

To that end, in the accompanying paper, stalcupangela_theoryandmethod_122013, I present a theoretical framework, based on Ashcraft’s four frames for communication, organization, and gendered identity, and the theories informing her approach. I then discuss the methodology (an ideological analysis) and the specific portions of text I will use for my analysis. For the execution of the analysis and discussion of implications, view this digital presentation. All references for the presentation are cited in the research paper portion of the project.

Note: additional supplemental materials include: Textual analysis matrix.


All About. (2013). Retrieved from

Allen, B. J. (2005). Social constructionism.  In S. May, & D. Mumby (Eds). Engaging organizational communication theory & research: Multiple perspectives (pp.35-53). Thousand Oaks, CA : Sage Publications.

American Express Open. (2013). The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. Retrieved from

Ashcraft, K. (2004). Gender, discourse, and organization: Framing a shifting relationship. In D. Grant, C. Hardy, C. Oswick, & L. Putnam (Eds.). The Sage handbook of organizational discourse (pp. 275-291). London: Sage.

Colligan, V. & Schoenfeldt, B. (2007). Ladies Who Launch: Embracing entrepreneurship and creativity as a lifestyle. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

CNBC (Producer). (2012). Getting Back to Business: A CNBC Town Hall Event. [Television episode]. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, E. M., Goodall Jr., H. L. & Trethewey, A. (2010). Organizational communication: Balancing creativity and constraint (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Ferriss, S., & Young, M. (2007). Chick flicks and chick culture. Post Script: Essays In Film And The Humanities, 27(1), 32-49.

Gupta, V. K., Turban, D. B., Wasti, S. A., Sikdar, A. (2009). The role of gender sterotypes in perceptions of entrepreneurs and intentions to become an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice, 33(2), 397-417. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6520.2009.00296.x

Morris, M. H., Miyasaki, N. N., Watters, C. E., & Coombes, S. M. (2006). The dilemma of growth: Understanding venture size choices of women entrepreneurs. Journal of Small Business Management, 44(2), 221-244. doi:10.1111/j.1540-627X.2006.00165.x

O’Conner, C. (2012, March). Undercover billionaire: Sara Blakely joins the rich list thanks to Spanx. Retrieved from

Phillips, M., & Knowles, D. (2012). Performance and performativity: Undoing fictions of women business owners. Gender, Work & Organization, 19(4), 416-437. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2010.00528.x


1 Comment

  1. […] COMM 610: The Social Construction of the “Chick” Entrepreneur […]

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