This research utilizes a capability approach to query the extent to which dominant conceptualizations of women’s micro-entrepreneurship enhance both economic and social development outcomes. Microenterprise programs speak directly to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly regarding poverty (SDG 1), gender equality (SDG 5), and decent work (SDG 8). However, microenterprise programs are embedded in institutional and normative definitions that limit women as “entrepreneurial,” thereby affecting women’s microenterprise motivations, characteristics, and capabilities. As a result, women’s enterprises continue to be largely informal and home-based subsistence enterprises that offer a low-quality employment option and fail to deliver “empowerment” outcomes. Data from focus group participants and econometric analysis of survey responses from 487 women micro-entrepreneurs in Kandy, Sri Lanka are used to compare women’s microentrepreneurial success in terms of both financial and empowerment outcomes. A novel conceptualization of the capabilities approach is presented with an original analytical framework that critically redefines enterprise success in terms of women’s empowerment: whether microentrepreneurship expands the menu of what women can be and do in their households and communities. In seeking to uncover differences among women, this work steps away from the more common comparison of men versus women. An iterative approach to defining success outcomes establishes that adding empowerment indicators to definitions of success highlights unique gender constraints on women’s micro-entrepreneurship not shown by purely financial outcome measures. The data analysis results suggest that women’s microentrepreneurship is significantly impacted by discriminatory social constraints and household norms that reduce both their enterprise success and potential for increasing empowerment.

Author Biography

Dr. Melissa Langworthy is a feminist economist specializing in gender, entrepreneurship, and economic empowerment. She has 15 years of experience working on women’s empowerment, decent work, and the SDG agenda, and capacity building for NGO and corporate social programs. She has provided technical expertise for academic institutions, policymakers, and the international development sector, including Facebook, UN Women, Oxfam, and the European Union. She is currently a Senior Researcher at Ladysmith working on social protection and women’s enterprise.