Women Entrepreneurs Face Additional Challenges, Panelists Say

When starting their own businesses, women face many of the same challenges as men, but can be hindered by social, cultural, political and educational biases, according to a panel on Women in Entrepreneurship at the Second Entrepreneurship Summit, organized Sept. 26 by CEU Business School, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary, the U.S. embassy, Budapest Business School and the Hungarian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

“We all recognize the need to raise awareness of the problem” of underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in business, said Caterina Sganga, assistant professor at CEU Business School and the Department of Legal Studies. Sganga co-leads the Women in Leadership Research Group with Judit Hildegard Hajos, executive director of CEU Business School’s Innovation Project. The Women in Leadership Research Group is a new initiative at CEU Business School that aims to become a hub for the exchange of ideas on the issue and how it plays out in Central and Eastern Europe. A survey conducted by the group has shown that there are biases in the education system, family culture, social culture, financial system and the political sphere that make it more difficult for women to excel in business, especially if they are also raising children, Sganga said.

Some of the issues are in women’s own thinking, as outlined in the book “Lean In,” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, said panelist Kincso Adriany, executive director of the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum.

“First, we don’t think big. Second, we don’t have a public profile, aren’t promoting ourselves. Third, women work in the business, not on the business. We tend to get lost in daily operations; we don’t take the time to be visionaries and have a strategic approach. Fourth, we have great networking skills but we don’t use them for our businesses. Fifth, we don’t tend to take risks.”

Panelist Reka Matheidesz, founder and CEO of design management company WAMP, sees social attitudes as a bigger obstacle, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.

“It’s more the social background and society as a whole that hold us back,” she said. “In this respect there’s a huge difference between western countries and Central and Eastern Europe. It’s enough to compare government support for women to stay at home for a long period of time. In my experience, people were arguing that I had to make a choice, to be a mother or build a career. Both are possible.”

Barbara Piazza-Georgi, who recently retired after 30 years at the United Nations specializing in developing countries and issues such as gender and youth issues and reproductive health, agreed.

“The elephant in the room is family-work balance,” she said. “In an ideal world, child care would be better distributed. If anyone says a woman must choose between being a mother and being an entrepreneur, they are doing something monstrous, in my opinion.”

All the panelists pointed to the lack of sufficient role models for women in business and in entrepreneurship. Maria Pechorina, a financial advisor and graduate of both CEU Business School and CEU’s Department of Gender Studies, said she found it difficult to find candidates for research on the topic of underrepresentation and gender bias in business.

“Successful women in business need to be more visible,” she said after finding it difficult to access enough Hungarian women leaders for her research. In Russia, she faced a similar challenge, that wealthy women were often wives of oligarchs rather than successful businesspeople in their own right.

During the event’s closing remarks, CEU Business School’s Sganga stressed the uniqueness of the underlying cultural, social, and economic influences that create challenges for women in business and women in entrepreneurship in Central and Eastern Europe.

“We cannot fully rely on a Western or Western-oriented perspective to analyze the problems,” she said. “We need to analyze it from a Central and Eastern Europe and transitioning economy point of view, and we need to start discussing it because it’s a loss of resources. The world is moving ahead and we cannot lag behind."

The panel concluded with participants urging men to also get involved in the discussion, and for the dialogue to continue.