Business Research

Gender Imprinting

Overcoming roadblocks: Are entrepreneurial endeavours locked out by gender imprinting?

For the first time ever, the 2019 SAP NHL All-Star Skills event showcased the abilities of professional male and female athletes. Is this shift towards equal opportunity enough to pierce through the male-dominant industry allowing new opportunities for entrepreneurs?

Research from the Alberta School of Business looks to understand why there are so few large scale professional women’s leagues in North America.

The easiest answers maybe that organizations in the early days ran out of money or that fans weren’t interested. However researchers knew the NFL, NBA, and MLB were built by owners that were historically financially burdened but somehow persisted to become some of today’s major entertainment offerings. The owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers who lost money in the beginning of his tenure, is documented saying, ‘‘I’d pay to lose money just to keep in this game. I love it that much.’’ The obvious roadblocks were not the real factors for failure, so the researchers dug deeper into data.

Finding data proved to be difficult for the researchers as most female leagues failed over the past 40 years. Out of the 21 women’s sports leagues they studied (which included basketball, volleyball, soccer and softball) only one - the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) lasted more than five years and is still in existence!

“Most of our historical data came from books and newspaper accounts and, where possible, which was mostly with female volleyball leagues, we were fortunate to contact previous entrepreneurs and players to interview them,” stated Marvin Washington, associate dean of the Executive Education program and professor of Strategic Management & Organization at the Alberta School of Business. “From this data, we found entrepreneurs of women’s sports leagues were unable to overcome certain roadblocks or liabilities because sports is imprinted as a masculine industry. This is referred to as gender imprinting. This is why previous entrepreneurs failed.”

Gender imprinting means cultural values, beliefs, norms and orientations associated with gender (e.g., masculinity or femininity) embedded in industry structures and practices affect new ventures’ endeavours. Research shows that there are lots of industries that embody a powerful masculine culture, such as oil and gas, construction, and the IT consulting industry. Similarly, early childhood education, nursing, and hairdressing are industries imprinted with a strong feminine culture.

The data and interviews further revealed to researchers three unique liabilities that entrepreneurs face when trying to launch female sports teams.

Liability of Identity

In the past, entrepreneurs viewed the creation of a new female league as an opportunity but the media was biased viewing it as a male industry. It would be naïve for women’s sports leagues to underestimate the difficulty of their venture due to gender imprinting. Regardless of how popular Canadian Women’s Olympic Hockey, or NCAA Volleyball are there are gender biases that need to be addressed and overcome to translate that popularity into a financially viable professional league. Overcoming these identity gender biases is a daunting but major step towards success.

Liability of Conformity

Previous entrepreneurs viewed the creation of a new league as an opportunity for women to compete or to extend their playing careers. However, they also tried to get their leagues to conform to the standards of the dominant men’s leagues in terms of sponsorship, national broadcasts, high salaries, etc. Female leagues run into trouble when they try to connect to the dominant and successful male sport leagues as this only highlights the differences between the women’s and men’s leagues. Female leagues instead should work to create their own story and standards.

Liability of Differentiation

Past entrepreneurs of women’s sports leagues tried to frame their sport as being different from the male equivalent but the media and others framed the women’s leagues as being weaker or less exciting. Once again, creating a new league requires patience and resilience because it is a slow process of development as seen in men’s professional leagues today. It took decades for the men’s professional leagues such as the NFL, NBA and NHL to reach success. Thus, if a women’s professional league is to be sustainable, entrepreneurs need to understand they are in it for the long haul.

Researchers believe that the discovery of these liabilities have strong implications for the success of new founders of women’s sports leagues.

“This year’s NHL All-Star Skills is a fundamental step forward where players, media and audiences began to change their biases,” says Marvin Washington “which means that this could be an opening for new female sports teams who have for so long been faced with gender imprinting.”

The article, Industry Gender Imprinting and New Venture Creation: The Liabilities of Women’s Leagues in the Sports Industry co-authored by Marvin Washington is published in the Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.  


Marvin Washington Marvin Washington is a researcher, teacher, and consultant who studies the processes of organizational and institutional change. With regards to his academic research, he is most interested in processes and dynamics labeled institutional work. He has examined a diverse set of institutions such as college sports, Italian lawyers, women’s professional sports, and megachurches. Marvin earned his BS in Industrial Engineering / Management Sciences and MS and PhD in Organization Behavior & Sociology at Northwestern University. Currently he is the Associate Dean of the Executive Education program and Professor of Strategic Management & Organization at the Alberta School of Business and Adjunct Professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation at the University of Alberta.