Aldrich, Kenan professor and director of graduate studies in sociology, is intrigued by the growing number of women business owners. And he’s perplexed. Women entrepreneurs, he says, are overlooked and misunderstood.

In 1970 about five percent of businesses in the U.S. were owned by women; now it’s about a third,” Aldrich says. And survival rates for men- and women-owned businesses appear no different, according to a study Aldrich conducted in Research Triangle Park. In another decade, women will own half of all small- and medium-sized businesses.

That trend parallels the gradual advance women made into the labor force starting in the late 1940s and gaining momentum through the 1970s. As the number of women in the workplace grew—increasing by about 1 percent a year—so did their visibility. “It took a long time, but eventually we started seeing articles about women in the workforce, about the glass ceiling, about sexual harassment,” Aldrich says. Prominence in the media helped make women workers more familiar and more accepted.

But women business owners, despite their increasing numbers, remain invisible. In a study with graduate student Nina Liou, Aldrich discovered that not only the popular media but also the business and academic press have ignored the steady influx of women into entrepreneurial activity.

This inattention, say Aldrich and Liou, stems in part from research biases. Business schools systematically favor research that focuses on large firms, usually Fortune 500 companies, where women still constitute the minority. Only 10 percent of the positions on the boards of Fortune 500 firms are held by women.

But their investigation points to a more fundamental reason editors and publishers overlook women business owners. The media, Aldrich and Liou say, stereotype men as entrepreneurs and competitive risk-takers and presume women are more skilled at human relations and cooperative ventures. Aldrich explains: “There is an androcentric bias. When people look at businesses, implicitly they have in mind a male model.”

Is it true that men are risk-takers and women are team-builders? Studies in psychology and sociology seem to suggest that men and women have different social behaviors. Now researchers wonder: As women become a larger fraction of managers and executives, will a women’s style of leadership emerge? Or will it turn out that the strategies that are effective in business are “gender-neutral?”

Aldrich is undecided. “On some days I’m a strong believer that we’ll find some important gender differences. Other days I’d say the similarities swamp the differences.”

Aldrich’s own research has contradicted some of the commonly held beliefs about women in business. He’s found that women aren’t shy about “networking” when they seek legal and financial advice. Surveying business owners in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, he found that women were no more likely to turn to family for this advice. They used the same channels as men did—friends and business associates. The women were also just as likely as men to consult strangers who had the right qualifications. When the business owners paid lawyers or financial counselors for advice, women paid the same as or less than men.

And Aldrich has found some evidence suggesting that men and women don’t perceive their managerial roles differently. Through a survey of Canadian business owners, Aldrich is examining how men and women think about their relationships with their employees. “We’re asking questions like, `Do you want your employees to think of you as a family? As a leader? As the boss?’” he says. “When it comes to human-resource practices—the way people are managing their workforce—it’s hard to see any differences.”

Aldrich is also looking at men and women’s entrepreneurial impulses, and, in a study with graduate student Amanda Elam, he has unearthed clear gender differences. “When we ask people their motives for starting small- and medium-sized businesses, we get a real sex difference. Women with young children overwhelmingly respond that flexibility is very important to them,” he explains. Men, on the other hand, are more focused on the bottom line.

Why do people decide to start their own businesses? And what makes a successful entrepreneur, male or female? Aldrich is trying to answer these questions in a long-term study with a consortium of 20 universities in America and Canada and about 10 European institutes. Together they’re scrutinizing nascent entrepreneurs—small-business owners still in the start-up process.

What we’re trying to do is look at this economic turbulence and see who it is that pops up as a potential entrepreneur,” Aldrich explains.

Based on pilot studies conducted in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the researchers have already discovered that four to six percent of randomly selected adults are in the process of starting a business. “That number,” Aldrich says, “shows that the level of entrepreneurial activity, the level of creativity, is much higher than you’d imagine if you just looked at the biggest companies.”

By following these budding capitalists over two or three years, Aldrich hopes to learn how social connections and professional networks translate into entrepreneurial success. Ferreting out why these adventurers take the risk of starting a business is difficult, but Aldrich maintains it’s important to understand the creative ways men and women participate in the economy. “The issue is not how many jobs are created by these people. Just the fact that so many people are trying to do this deserves more attention. Why, in spite of all the odds, all the barriers and the difficulties, why do people still keep going? It’s really a fascinating issue.”

Mary Dalrymple was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

A portion of this research was supported by the School of Business at New York University.