Within contemporary society, entrepreneurship is feted as a pathway to self-efficacy, independence and innovation, whilst also creating employment and generating wealth. Further, it is presumed to be an open site of opportunity as there are no barriers to entry. Yet evidence suggests a strong gendered bias, which since the 1990s has been explored through a focus upon the under-representation of women entrepreneurs.

This critique has been invaluable. However, it adopts some troubling assumptions in that gendered analyses draw almost exclusively upon heterosexual women as a proxy for gender. We challenge this bias when using a gendered perspective to compare the entrepreneurial activity of homosexuals and heterosexuals.

Exploring gay entrepreneurship matters. As homosexuality is stereotypically associated with contradictory enactments of gender which can elicit social hostility, it has been suggested that gays and lesbians might consider entrepreneurship as a refuge from discrimination within employment. Yet, this argument might be undermined by the contemporary decline in homophobia and also, challenges to the notion that gays and lesbians confirm to contradictory gender stereotypes. This may have greater relevance in the context of entrepreneurship, where desired stereotypes reflect masculine characteristics of aggression, competitiveness and risk tolerance that marginalise other expressions of masculinity and femininity.

To explore such arguments, we analysed the UK Integrated Household Survey (IHS); a large-scale population-based representative survey of 163,000 British adults conducted in 2010, which includes a self-reported measure of sexuality and information related to entrepreneurial activity. We adopted a ‘competing hypothesis approach’. Our null hypothesis suggested there would be no differences in entrepreneurial activity patterns between homosexuals and heterosexuals, with the contradictory hypothesis being that male and female homosexuals may be more likely to select into self-employment as a refuge from employment discrimination and so, are more likely to be entrepreneurially active than heterosexuals.

We also recognise mediating influences upon entrepreneurial activity by analysing if gay entrepreneurs favour specific sectors [pink ghettos] or if location is influential in providing a more conducive context for entrepreneurship.

Using a range of statistical techniques to test hypotheses relating the likelihood of gays and lesbians being over-represented as entrepreneurs, and more likely to be favour specific sectors and certain locations, we found that lesbians are slightly more likely than heterosexual women to be entrepreneurs, but gay men are less likely. Neither difference is statistically significant. Thus, we found no support for arguments that homosexuals may use entrepreneurship as a refuge from discrimination.

This broad headline may hide important nuances around issues of intersectionality, whereby elements such as race and ethnicity intersect with sexual preference and also sector and location, as homosexuals may seek spaces where they are less likely to experience homophobic discrimination.

Our analysis again finds little evidence for significant effects of such moderating influences. It may, for example, have been expected that gay and lesbian entrepreneurs would be more common in London or that, if populist stereotypes are to be believed, that lesbian entrepreneurs would be more prevalent in sectors such as construction. In fact, lesbian entrepreneurs are more prevalent in the North East of England and Wales, but with no sectoral biases.

Overall, there are a few indications of differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals. Using this evidence, we seek to expand analyses of gendered influences upon entrepreneurship beyond that of women’s enterprise. The focus upon women risks creating a niche category of gender and entrepreneurship that has largely become ‘about women, by women and for women’. Consequently, we explored entrepreneurial activity amongst gay men and lesbian women to advance the contemporary gendered entrepreneurial debate. This, we argue, is vital to challenge assumptions of ‘normal’ heterosexuality by researchers and to develop a more critically engaged understanding of gendered notions of entrepreneurship.

Given that, as researchers, we often expect stereotypical gendered ascriptions and related discrimination upon socio-economic choices and behaviour to be important, these results might appear surprising. We, however, see that they support our argument for the need for greater discernment between perceptions that fuel expectations of gendered behaviours and substantive evidence that does not support such perceptions.

Reflecting evidence that challenges the ‘entrepreneurial deficit’ stereotype amongst women business owners, our approach challenges dominant presumptions that the gendered individual is, in fact, defined and bounded by their ascribed gender. This challenges us as researchers to make apparent the often implicit normative framing of differences between individuals and groups. Thereby, it encourages greater reflexivity regarding, in this case, gendered accounts of heteronormative entrepreneurship, which may help unwittingly to embed the very notions that we are seeking to challenge.

Whilst we do not deny the critical importance of gender, discrimination or stereotypes as fundamental identity and life chance indicators, we suggest that in the context of entrepreneurship, gender does not simplistically equate to women, and that evaluating how gendered representations relate to the entrepreneurial activities of individuals (whatever their sexual persuasion) must become the normative stance within research if we are open up new strands of theorising and crucially, to avoid creating a feminised ghetto of gender research which is marginalised from mainstream debate.



Susan Marlow is professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham. She holds the Queens Award for Enterprise and is a fellow of the UK Institution for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Her research interests focus upon entrepreneurial behaviour with a particular expertise in issues of gender bias.


Francis Greene is professor and chair of entrepreneurship at Edinburgh University’s Business School. Previously, he held positions at the Universities of Durham, Warwick and Birmingham. His research interests are focused on the start-up, growth and failure of entrepreneurial businesses. His business engagement work has seen him work for the OECD, the European Commission, the Federation of Small Business, some of the major banks in the UK, as well as individual and national governments.  This work has sought to practically improve understandings of entrepreneurship for individual businesses, and stakeholders such as the banks and national and international policy makers.

Alex Coad has a PhD in economics from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a PhD in economics from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. He was an economic analyst at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Seville, Spain, an associate researcher at the University of Sussex, among others. In 2016 he won the Richard R. Nelson Prize for his study of firm growth.