ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (4): 579-593.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00579

• Conceptual Framework • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Female social entrepreneurship: A research proposal on identity strategies, legitimacy acquisition, and performance impact

DENG Wei(), SONG Rui, ZHOU Wen-xin   

  1. School of Management, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an 710072, China
  • Received:2023-06-24 Online:2024-04-15 Published:2024-02-29
  • Contact: DENG Wei


Identity strategy plays a pivotal role in addressing two paramount challenges faced by female social entrepreneurs: gaining legitimacy and improving entrepreneurial performance. Despite its recognized importance, there remains a notable dearth of research into the nuanced interplay between female social entrepreneurs’ identity strategies and legitimacy acquisition. Furthermore, the mechanisms through which identity integration contributes to enhancing social entrepreneurial performance remain underexplored. Filling this gap is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the intricate dynamics at play in the realm of female social entrepreneurship.

In response, this study adopts a progressive logic of “identity strategy - legitimacy acquisition - performance impact” and conducts three sub-studies: Study 1 adopts experimental conjoint analysis to explore how women strategically leverage multiple identities, shaping a distinct self-cognition that guides their decisions to enter female social entrepreneurship. Utilizing fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis (fsQCA), study 2 identifies configurations of identity strategies that contribute to both the success and failure of legitimacy acquisition among female social entrepreneurs. Study 3 delves into the mechanisms through which identity integration affects female social entrepreneurial performance. It unveils the mediating role of legitimacy and the moderating influence of social bricolage.

This study contributions to the literature on entrepreneurial identity, entrepreneurial legitimacy, and female social entrepreneurship:

First, it enhances the understanding of entrepreneurial identity by revealing how identity strategy can elucidate variations in entrepreneurs’ behaviors and outcomes. Notably, there is a scarcity of research addressing the impact of identity on women’s social entrepreneurial decisions, behaviors, and outcomes. This study bridges this gap by establishing female social entrepreneurs’ identity strategy as the fundamental starting point. It constructs a comprehensive research framework that delineates the influence of female social entrepreneurs’ identity strategy on their decision-making, legitimacy acquisition, and social entrepreneurial performance. Consequently, it sheds light on the previously obscure process of female social entrepreneurs’ identity strategy and its tangible effectiveness.

Second, this study deepens our understanding of how women strategically employ multiple identities to gain legitimacy. By emphasizing women’s participation in institutional pluralism, this study breaks through the limitation of previous studies that focus only on legitimacy conferred by a single stakeholder group. Based on the institutional logic perspective, this paper subdivides female social entrepreneurs' legitimacy into internal legitimacy from internal stakeholders (e.g., family members, friends, employees, volunteers) and external legitimacy from external stakeholders (e.g., business partners, customers, beneficiary groups, the public). Additionally, the study advances the field by exploring diverse configurations of both successful legitimacy acquisition and the often-overlooked aspect of legitimacy loss, overcoming the previous focus on acquisition success alone.

Third, this study surpasses the conventional “gender comparison” research framework to reveal the underlying reasons for the differences in perceptions, behaviors, and performance among female social entrepreneurs. Existing research typically assumes, from a “gender comparison” standpoint, that women are inherently more suitable for social entrepreneurship and may outperform men, yet empirical evidence supporting these assumptions is lacking. In contrast, this study delves into the heterogeneity among female social entrepreneurs, contending that identity serves as the micro-foundation for variations in entrepreneurial decision-making, behavior, and performance. The study introduces identity integration as the independent variable, with legitimacy as a mediating variable and social bricolage as a moderating variable. This intricate framework elucidates the underlying mechanisms shaping differences in entrepreneurial behavior and performance among female social entrepreneurs, moving beyond simplistic gender-based comparisons.

This study yields vital practical implications:

First, this study aids potential female social entrepreneurs in navigating the “identity paradox,” forming a clearer self-cognition, reducing the uncertainties associated with entrepreneurship, and bolstering confidence in social entrepreneurial endeavors. The study’s impact extends beyond individual empowerment, contributing significantly to resolving employment challenges for women. Furthermore, its broader practical influence resonates in the creation of more jobs, the promotion of socio-economic development, and the overall improvement of women’s societal status.

Second, this study offers valuable guidance for female social entrepreneurs in bridging the “legitimacy gap.” It guides them to rationally manage their identity to respond to multiple stakeholders’ demands, successfully obtain legitimacy, and improve entrepreneurial success rate. The study delves into the communication dynamics employed by female social entrepreneurs with various stakeholders to secure legitimacy through identity strategy. Furthermore, it scrutinizes the configurations of identity strategies leading to both legitimacy gain (success) and loss of legitimacy (failure). The study’s findings furnish practical references, providing insights on “what to do” and “what not to do” for female social entrepreneurs seeking to optimize their legitimacy and entrepreneurial outcomes.

Third, this study provides practical guidance on women’s roles as change makers and social innovators, rather than as recipients, through which female social entrepreneurship can realize a social mission while ensuring business sustainability. In contrast to the prevalent perception of women as a vulnerable group in need of assistance, this study accentuates the agency of female social entrepreneurs in driving more equitable and sustainable socio-economic development. It encourages women to leverage social entrepreneurship as a means to address societal disparities, thereby enhancing the inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of social development as a whole.

Key words: female social entrepreneurship, identity strategy, legitimacy, social entrepreneurial performance, social bricolage

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