Women entrepreneurs in Italy: A prosopographic study

Women entrepreneurs have long been an understudied topic in business history. This article contributes to fill this gap by analysing Italian women’s entrepreneurship from the mid twentieth century to 2016. It is based on a new dataset concerning the profiles of the 80 women who were successful entrepreneurs and became Cavalieri del Lavoro (Knights of Labour), i.e. they were decorated with the Ordine al ‘Merito del Lavoro’ (Order of Merit for Labour), the highest recognition for achievements in the world of business in Italy. The dataset also includes a comparable sample of men who obtained the same award to single out the main similarities and differences between men and women entrepreneurs. This article employs a quantitative prosopographic approach: after presenting some descriptive statistics and some exemplary cases of successful women entrepreneurs, it uses cluster analysis to identify typological groups of women versus men entrepreneurs. The main results show that the institutional context and gender stereotypes slowed down the development of Italian women’s entrepreneurial abilities. Women entrepreneurs tend to cluster in family firms and to have become entrepreneurs by inheritance, whereas they have been handicapped in all other fields relevant to entrepreneurial success: access to education (especially STEM), managerial career, and experience abroad. Nonetheless, women entrepreneurs operated beyond women’s niches tied to the traditional ideology of femininity, e.g. textiles, garment and services. Several women operated in sectors such as chemicals and engineering in which many Italian industrial districts are specialised.