In a nutshell….
Women entrepreneurship strategies and policies focus on addressing failings or limitations unique to women, rather than on systemic, industry, or institutional issues, perceiving a deficiency of perceived female underperformance. By treating women differently to men, treating them a problem that needs to be fixed, and by creating women-only targeted initiatives, women continue to be marginalized. Many business structures are shaped for men, with women restricted in their entrepreneurial ambitions in the lower echelons of the retails and service sector, often referred to as ‘pink ghettos’.
Our research explores the efficacy of women-only networks in supporting women’s entrepreneurial ambitions. The research was conducted in Northern Ireland, a region where female entrepreneurship is low in comparison to the rest of the UK. In order to combat this, regional economic policy has focused on stimulating and supporting women’s entrepreneurship through the establishment of formal women-only networks to provide support, role models, and access to networks. indeed, policymakers see the drive to increase female entrepreneurship as key to helping foster national and regional economic growth. In conducting this research, we spoke to members of women-only business networks, which have been at the heart of policies in Northern Ireland for nearly two decades, as well as members of mixed networks and of both.
What we found….
Our findings show a disconnect between intent and actual impact, as the networks perpetuate women’s marginalization and place them in a niche rather them empowering and encouraging them. The research shows policy design ignores inherent structural issues within society and entrepreneurship, where there is still a clear and continuing division of labor between ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’. We also found that there is a lack of knowledge and information around the sectors women entrepreneurs tend to predominate in. This leads to a shortfall in well-connected and credible contacts and role models to provide information or introductions to suppliers or gatekeepers. The women-only networks tend to be more geographically restricted and focus more on social support over business development, failing to provide a platform to address issues of gender inequality in entrepreneurship. The interviews also revealed a perception among the network members of having to battle against a male-dominated society, where they had to overcome stereotypes of women as mothers or homemakers, which can reduce entrepreneurship being seen as a viable option.
Call to action….
- Women need to bold and not be afraid to say “I am an Entrepreneur”. Women often find it difficult to see themselves as entrepreneurs, and some feel that they need permission to do be one! (see my previous blog)
- More needs to be done to combat wider issues around male dominance – challenging taken for granted assumptions which are often premised on male standards. Caroline Criado-Perez’s work really highlights this.
- Identify, address and challenge the various means by which cultural bias manifests (e.g. networking venues -i.e. pubs and clubs) and networking times – again all based on men’s lifestyles!).
- Also, read my interview which appeared in the L’Express Magazine