Does gender bend e-commerce uptake rates?

E-commerce can be a powerful tool in business but its uptake may rest on an otherwise ignored factor, according to university research which shows that the gender of the CEO can make a difference.

Female chief executive officers in small business were more relaxed with giving instructions to staff through informal conversation than were their male counterparts, according to recent studies in the Netherlands, by Verheul, Risseeuw & Bartelse (2002). Female CEOs were also more likely to hire external expertise and were more inclined to develop business strategies that were specific to their particular business than were their male counterparts, the study also showed.

Female chief execs in Sweden paid more attention to business-to-business links and strategic alliances than did males, a study by Sandberg (2003) showed which also indicated that female CEOs were more mindful of both their customers and their staff than were their male counterparts.

SME uptake of e-commerce also shows some gender impact in a study by the University of Wollongong (NSW) and Sweden's University of Karlstadt over the past two years.

One aspect has been looking at why many SMEs had not adopted e-commerce in their day-to-day activities. A comparison of the two SME samples showed that of the 313 Swedish SMEs surveyed, 47 percent had not adopted e-commerce. By comparison, of the 164 Australian SMEs surveyed, 84 percent had not adopted e-commerce into their day-to-day activities.

The first task of the research was to examine the barriers to e-commerce adoption. In both samples, the researchers found that despite the many reasons for non-adoption given in the literature, statistically, these reasons could be conflated into two major reasons: e-commerce was unsuitable to the particular SME, e-commerce was technically too difficult a technique for the SME to deal with. The researchers asked the inevitable question – were there any differences in the barriers to e-commerce that seemed gender related?

The data from the two studies was examined across the two barrier groups – unsuitability of e-commerce to the way the business operated and e-commerce being technically difficult.

The data from the two studies was examined across the two barrier groups – unsuitability of E-commerce to the way the business operated and E-commerce being technically difficult. The data showed that 55 percent of the male CEOs from Sweden indicated that their single biggest concern was that E-commerce was technically difficult. 16 percent of the male CEOs from Sweden indicated that their single major concern was that E-commerce was not suitable to their particular business. All other male respondents felt that both barriers were an issue. By comparison, only 16 percent of the female CEO respondents from Sweden felt that their biggest problem was the technical difficulties of E-commerce. 65 percent indicated that their biggest problem was that E-commerce didn’t suit their particular business. Again, all others felt that it was a combination of the two barriers.

Thus for the Swedish SME owner and managers it was the males that had the greatest technical difficulties with e-commerce, while the females had difficulty with the appropriateness of e-commerce to their business. The Australian data showed the exact opposite.

A further look at the local data revealed a number of gender differences.

Only 26 percent of the SMEs with a female CEO had a Web site, compared to 53 percent of those that had a male CEO. While the percentages are substantially lower than the number of SMEs with Web sites in Sweden, the Swedish data showed no gender differences in Web site use.

Of the female respondents surveyed 89 percent said that if they were to adopt e-commerce they would hire an external expert to oversee the installation. By comparison, only 60 percent of the male respondents indicated that they would turn to external expertise.

Finally, 59 percent of the SMEs with a female CEO indicated that they did not have enough time to implement either a Web site or e-commerce. By comparison, only 25 percent of the SMEs with male CEOs indicated that time was a major inhibitor.

Much has been written concerning e-commerce, its adoption, its use and its many benefits. Much has also been written concerning how e-commerce can and should be adopted by both large business as well as SMEs. A comparison of the Swedish and Australian findings would suggest that there are gender differences with e-commerce adoption in SMEs and that these need to be carefully considered throughout the adoption process.

Rob MacGregor and Lejla Vrazalic, Depart of IS, University of Wollongong

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