A Canadian study on how entrepreneurship affects mental health has revealed that women entrepeneurs do not grow their companies or export at the same rate as their male counterparts, despite starting as many businesses.

Halifax-based Michael DeVenney, who conducted The Mindset Project last year, believes the survey may be the largest on the subject in the world. He received 485 replies to his extensive questionnaire, 80 per cent of them from Atlantic Canada.

“Women have a tendency to start businesses that are sole proprietor ventures or have fewer than 20 employees. Men are more likely to start companies that grow larger,” said DeVenney, who is the president of consulting agency, Bluteau DeVenney.

He suggests this may be because female entrepreneurs are receiving insufficient support. Men and women also respond differently to risk and to the perception of risk.

“With the perception of high risk or high stress, men become less risk-averse, while women become more risk-averse,” said DeVenney, whose interest in mental health stems from his own struggles with depression.

“Women have a more realistic perspective on what entrepreneurship will take and its impact on life and relationships. Men think, I can make it all work…Women seem deterred by those perceptions.”

DeVenney said women are not wrong to be cautious as entrepreneurship is a horrendous lifestyle. Entrepreneurs work very long hours, and identify to an unhealthy degree with their businesses.

He said that although men feel they can handle stress, they do struggle.

“Men feel they can cope then have to deal with the aftermath. Men are not coping as well as they think.”

Probing the Mental Health of Founders

He said women tend to have better coping skills.

“Women are more likely to talk to people about how they’re faring than men — a key indicator of coping. Men are more likely to isolate, which compounds the issue.”

Despite women’s risk-aversion and greater coping skills, women reported a greater perception of overall health decline since starting in entrepreneurship — 53 per cent compared with 41 per cent of men.

Among women, 25 per cent said their mental health was poor or very poor, while 14 per cent of men said the same.

“Men feel they have to show they’re tough and can handle things, women maybe feel even more pressure to do the same,” DeVenney said. “Women seem to have to do more than men to prove themselves — For all the talk about gender parity, it’s still not happening.”

The survey also found women entrepreneurs are less likely to export than male. Only 12 per cent of female respondents had revenues from exports, compared with 21 per cent of men.

These figures are close to the national average. DeVenney said about 17 per cent of entrepreneurs nationally export, despite the recent nationwide focus on growing export markets.

His survey revealed a particularly high level of mental health problems among those who do export — 48 per cent of entrepreneurs who export said their overall health had worsened since becoming an entrepreneur.

“We may not have done a good job in supporting people who are exporting,” DeVenney said. “It requires more complex decision-making when the entrepreneur is already under stress.”

DeVenney said he would like to dig deeper on his findings and is in talks with other groups on follow-up surveys.

“We’d like to know more. We need to better shape how entrepreneurs work so women, and men, are more comfortable growing their companies,” he said.

“It bothers me that women aren’t growing their businesses. It’s not due to the type of business women are running or their capabilities. There are just as many female respondents running businesses that can be scaled.”