Christina Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, said she was dismayed at how few women she saw the first day she taught a class on entrepreneurship at the University of Montana.

“I was very discouraged to see two women out of 20 enrolled,” the adjunct professor said.

Henderson said much needs to be done to convince more women to become entrepreneurs, including convincing them to take the exploratory classes in college. She’s also calling for more women to attend business round table discussions.

Recently, a conversation about high-tech business needs in Montana hosted by her organization drew a table of only men, even though 26 percent of the 58 leaders they had invited were women.

Henderson said in the last six months, the number of women at those types of conversations all over the state have been “depressingly low,” with often just one or no women at the table.

Henderson subsequently dug into the statistics of the invitations and the actual attendance.

“Men and women accepted our invitations at drastically different rates,” she said. “Men said yes about 52 percent of the time. Women only said yes about 15 percent of the time. For around 27 percent of the invitations we extended to a woman, a man was sent in her place. When we invited a man, there was never an instance where a woman took his place at the table. In the end, only about 8 percent of the leaders attending the executive round tables were female.”

Just 18 percent of the Alliance's member businesses have women leaders, but the fastest-growing ones are nearly twice as likely to have a female executive. However, she still has problems getting them to show up to the panel talks.

“I cannot say for certain what conscious or unconscious decisions are leading to this gender disparity, or whether our events are inadvertently unappealing to women,” she said. “But I hope by bringing it to the attention of our community, we can work together to do something about it.”

Henderson called for leaders of companies to insist on women being present at panels. She also thinks women should say yes more often to invitations.

“While certainly there are unavoidable reasons to decline an invitation, women might consider whether they can say yes more often,” she said. “As female executives, their presence brings a unique and necessary point of view to the discussion and ensures that the diverse perspectives of Montana’s tech community are accurately represented.

"While male leaders may serve as capable representatives of your company, they are not a replacement for a female leader.”

Since Henderson posted on the Alliance’s blog about the disparity, she’s been pleasantly surprised to see more women showing up.

“It’s been all positive feedback,” she said. “Two women executives reached out to me. One said she was reading it while shaking her head ‘yes’ and realized it was about her. We’ve heard from men who said they really want to see women at these tables. We hosted an event in Kalispell yesterday, and a man sent a woman in his place to intentionally counter the trend. Hopefully we’ll continue to see change and not just immediately in the wake of (the blog post).”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, about a third of business owners in the U.S. are women. Montana ranks 35th in growth of the number of women-owned firms since 2007 with a 30 percent increase, according to the State of Women-Owned Business Report commissioned by American Express. There are an estimated 36,500 women-owned businesses in Montana that employ 34,400 workers and contribute $4.65 million to the state’s Gross Domestic Product.

But while the number of women-owned businesses have been growing, women only comprise about a third of Montana’s self-employed workers. And only 18 percent of Montana’s firms with employees are majority female owned.

According to a report last year from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research and the Blackstone LaunchPad at UM, women are much less likely to use the resources at the LaunchPad, which are free and help people start businesses.

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Paul Gladen of Blackstone, former BBER economist Bryce Ward and Kathy Kuipers of the UM Department of Sociology conducted a survey to find out why. They found that women were less likely to report having had an idea for a new venture, and were also less likely to report they would pursue a new idea if they had one.

“We can group explanations for this disparity into two broad, though not exclusive, categories,” Ward wrote. “First, the difference may reflect objective challenges that disproportionately affect women. For instance, women may face particular barriers, such as a lack of particular skills or traits, difficulty accessing supportive networks, difficulty accessing capital or discrimination."

Ward believes such barriers may decrease the odds for female entrepreneurs to succeed.

"Low rates of participation in pre-entrepreneurship may reflect a woman’s rational response to these barriers,” he added.

He said fewer women might choose to pursue entrepreneurship because they know that they will face these barriers.

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As for the second category, Ward said there may be differences in perceptions of entrepreneurship between men and women.

“Women may be more likely to underrate their potential to succeed as entrepreneurs,” Ward wrote. “This could reflect women overstating what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur or it could reflect women underrating their own ability to succeed as entrepreneurs. It could also reflect women imagining barriers they may or may not face.”

Gladen said he’s working to address these issues by tackling misconceptions and promoting awareness of the benefits of entrepreneurship. 

The pay gap between men and women is just as serious an issue as the entrepreneurship disparity. For both issues, there are signs of progress but much yet to be done.

Amy Watson, a senior economist at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said women’s real wages have risen by 1.9 percent since 2010 compared to .9 percent for men. However, women still earn much less than men here.

“Despite faster wage growth, the gender wage gap still exists,” she said in a recent report. “Females in Montana earned $33,400 in 2016 compared to $50,500 for men. As labor markets continue to tighten and employers look to recruit workers, many employers have focused on attracting family caregivers into the workforce through higher wages, flexible scheduling, and other family-friendly policies."

Women make up less than half the Montana workforce and have lower labor force participation rates, she noted.

"However, the labor force participation rates for women with children under six years old rose slightly from 2011 to 2016, perhaps because of changes in recruitment practices among businesses," she added.

Christina Hendricks of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance has already seen positive signs. A new "Pursue Your Passion" program at UM is aimed at attracting young students who might be curious about business.

"It's had an impact on women's participation in the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge," she said. "They've gone from in the past maybe having one or two women out of 20 participants to now it's more like five or 10. It's very encouraging to see that number increase."

In fact, a woman who developed an app that teaches children to write, called Story Squares, won the first place prize last year.

"We're very encouraged to see that impact," Henderson said.

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