Empowering or Marginalising? Women-Only Business Networks

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’.

The research…..

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….

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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!).
  4. Also, read my interview which appeared in the L’Express Magazine

Permission to be an Entrepreneur….

The cultural conversation around entrepreneurship tends to focus predominantly on the male experience. This is also reflected in academia, where the debate regarding entrepreneurial identity has drawn attention to the gender blind assumptions informing this analysis, thus suggesting that the normal entrepreneur is 35yr old male. These assumptions or biases can have serious implications for those considering entrepreneurship, who do not fit the ideal image of the male entrepreneur. Indeed, this lack of fit with the accepted mode of entrepreneurship has resulted in women being made invisible, marginalized and deemed the ‘other’, in the entrepreneurship field. Women must, therefore, reach into a social space that is fundamentally unsympathetic to their gendered characterization. For those women who decide to engage in entrepreneurial activity, they are positioned within the contemporary entrepreneurial discourse, including popular media, as a discrete and separate category with their own label – “female entrepreneurs”. This special classification only goes to confirm that there are normal entrepreneurs (men, family teams, partnerships) and, separate from them, are women. It is unsurprising therefore that women may be reluctant to claim the entrepreneurial identity and feel that they may need permission to do so. This reluctance is significant as “owning/claiming” is an important first step in the building of a credible entrepreneurial identity.

So my key message is to be aware that you do not have to wait until you get a degree, gain 10 years’ experience or reach some other self-prescribed milestone before you can be an entrepreneur – just do it. Only through action can you see actual results. Then, based on that data, you can determine what your next steps will be. As an entrepreneur, you have permission to act. So rather than waiting for permission, the right time and right circumstances, be ready to act.

DCU and the Sustainable Development Goals Event- May 2019

A one-day conference and workshop featuring scholars from across the university, highlighting key DCU research relating to the SDG’s and promoting future cross-faculty collaboration took place on the 3rd of May, 2019.

DCU is actively developing its commitment to the furtherance of sustainable development goals and already has considerable expertise in this regard. This event was an innovative platform to incentivize and encourage further work, to share the valuable insights generated by DCU researchers, and enhance the impact of the university’s work output.

This event allowed each of the 17 SDG goals to be highlighted and discussed by a member of DCU academic staff who is internationally recognized within this topic. It was an honor to be invited to discuss SDG 5 – Gender Equality and its relevance in informing my own personal research agenda. The aim of SDG 5 is to Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. During my presentation, I highlighted that “women” are often used as a proxy for gender and as a result, this may serve to exclude other gendered subjectivities. With regards to the identification of future research avenues, I referred to the importance of intersectionality, cyberfeminism, and masculinity, with regards to moving the gender agenda forward.

Leaders unlike me

On the 6th of November, I attended the Leaders Unlike You workshop as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

This event, hosted by Professor Kiran Trehan, University of Birmingham explored the options for working with artists to create open learning spaces and visual representation of our current situation and where we need to be. This interactive workshop, also considered how we can use creative approaches to make leadership diversity everyone’s business. This is was achieved by identity through stories, pictures, and a live performance from Birmingham-based Dragpunk.

My key takeaways from this event were:

  • The possibilities of using the arts to transform the way in which we think about leadership. The arts have an unrivalled ability to create change and transformation, challenging convention and inspiring us to see the familiar in new ways. We need to harness this ability in order to portray the everydayness of leadership in practice.
  • The importance of making space for different types of leadership. Regardless of type- the “fitting in whilst standing out“ paradox is deemed significant in the quest of legitimacy.
  • Diversity and inclusion in leadership not only matter, but  we also need to transform the way that we think about leaders and leadership and in so doing make the invisible visible by learning to work with difference.

Professor Maura McAdam wins Best Paper Award at the 2017 Diana International Conference

DCU Business School Professor Maura McAdam was recently awarded the Best Paper Award at the Diana International Conference held in Kansas City, Missouri in October 2017. The paper, “An Exploration of the Emancipatory Potential of Digital Entrepreneurship for Female Entrepreneurs in the Kingdom of Saudi Paper”, co-authored with Dr Caren Crowley, examines the emancipatory potential of digital entrepreneurship for women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

By examining six case studies through the use of an innovative oral history methodology, the paper explores how women in KSA utilise digital technologies in the pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities. The paper challenges the notion that gender inequalities are simply reflected online, by illustrating the transformative potential of Internet technologies especially social media in supporting female entrepreneurship in KSA.

The Diana Project was established in 1999 to raise awareness and expectations of women business owners regarding the growth of their firms.  Diana conferences provide an annual forum to share and develop a global research agenda in women’s entrepreneurship across continents, cultures and contexts. The 10th annual conference took place on October 1 – 3 2017 at the Ewing Mario Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

Professor McAdam is Professor of Management (DCU Business School), Director of Entrepreneurship (DCU) and Director of Research at DCU Centre for Family Business. She is an internationally recognised scholar within the area of entrepreneurship with particular expertise in gender, entrepreneurial leadership, technology entrepreneurship and family business. She is currently a Visiting Professor at Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University, Saudi Arabia.

Dr Caren Crowley Caren holds a PhD in Management and Innovation studies from the National University of Ireland, Galway. In February 2016, she began working  with Dublin City University (DCU), on the MSc in Business Administration at Princess Noura University, Saudi Arabia. Caren is currently an Assistant Professor in Research Methods at Maastricht School of Management where she will continue to work in the area of female / digital entrepreneurship with a particular focus on developing economies.

Article originally published at DCUBS News

Business networking for women only: Is there still a need?

Whilst reflecting on IWD 2017, Olive Keogh discusses the relevance of women-only networks for women entrepreneurs

“women choose an all-female group not because they lack confidence in themselves or their idea, but because they prefer the camaraderie and support they get from other women. It’s not that it’s any less competitive – the women are as driven to succeed as the men. But there’s a huge openness within female-only groups that you don’t get with mixed groups.


“When it comes to increasing sales and achieving strategic goals, such as growth, or accessing new opportunities, then a mixed group is better as it more accurately mirrors the general business environment,” says McAdam, a professor of management and director of entrepreneurship at DCU.

Delighted to be invited to engage in this worthwhile and timely conversation

The tech industry is no picture of equality. shutterstock.com

Do tech accelerators have a sexism problem?

Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit are all companies that emerged out of tech accelerators. These incubators of talent have been a crucial component in turning tech start-ups into businesses that can stand on their own two feet. As well as giving needy new companies financial support and office space, they play an important role in helping them develop through mentoring.

So it’s good news that the number of accelerator programmes is set to increase in the UK, to support what is one of the world’s most dynamic start-up clusters and the most prominent start-up ecosystem in Europe. But, as this takes place, there’s a huge need to address the industry’s gender imbalance. My research into tech accelerator programmes has found many (often unwittingly) cater for men over women.

You only need to take a quick look at any accelerator participant list to see that women lack status, visibility and voice within these programmes. The US accelerator Y Combinator, for example, has invested in more than 700 start-ups (including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit). Just 13% of these have been led by women. 

The situation in Europe is even bleaker. Some figures show that women hold a mere 5 to 10% share of accelerator programmes. This therefore begs the question as to whether accelerators offer equal access to women entrepreneurs, despite accelerators claiming to be “open to all”.

The well-rehearsed counter-argument to this imbalance is that this is merely a reflection of engineering and technology entrepreneurship – women just don’t feature prominently in the industry and the numbers in accelerator programmes reflects this. The evidence, however, indicates that within Europe women own around 15% of all science engineering and technology ventures. So, where are all the women when it comes to accelerators? Their minority status in the sector does not satisfactorily explain their absence from this important support mechanism.

Fighting stereotypes

Research I’ve carried out with my colleague Susan Marlow indicates that the absence of women is due to their perception that they are not the stereotypical accelerator candidate. This is intriguing given that it is assumed that these programmmes are free from prejudice, with the focus on the commercial potential of the venture and not the owner’s personal characteristics.

Susan Johnson, CEO of women.com and a Y Combinator participant, said of her experience

I didn’t think I was a candidate for this world-class accelerator. I didn’t think I looked like a ‘YC founder’.

Thus, women may be opting out of accelerator programmes because of a perceived lack of fit with the predominantly male tech and start-up culture.

For those women who do overcome this problem and get onto the programmes, they often then encounter prejudice and discrimination at the hands of the old boys’ club culture of many accelerators, which can manifest in rugby and golfing outings in addition to typical “boys talk”.

‘Boys talk’ at the golf club. shutterstock.com

Furthermore, in an attempt to blend in, women feel pressure to adopt a male persona. For example, the high tech women entrepreneurs we interviewed spoke of adopting particular gestures and dress codes in order to fit in and succeed.

Mentoring is one of the linchpins of any accelerator programme. Not only do the lack of women in accelerator programmes lead to a lack of female mentors. Our research also found that many women wanted a male mentor in order “to learn how to think like a man” – this being the perception of how to succeed in the tech industry. Thus, women’s efforts to adjust to the predominantly male culture of the tech start-up scene, leads to sexism in accelerators going unchallenged and camouflaged instead.

If we want to support the ambitions and great work being done by women entrepreneurs, we must question existing accelerator culture and what an ideal candidate looks like. Currently they only serve to reduce women’s confidence and interest in entering the programmes.

Furthermore, the lack of women within accelerator programmes results in a lack of female role models, making it challenging for a woman to imagine herself as a suitable accelerator candidate. We therefore need to continue the debate on the inclusivity of accelerator programmes as there remains a long way to go towards an equal playing field for women in the traditionally male-dominated tech and start-up industry.

Article originally posted at The Conversation

Tech Diversity: Accelerators Go After Women, Underrepresented Minorities For New Startup Ideas

Salvador Rodriguez writes about tech diversity in accelerators, a subject close to my heart.

Accelerators focused on entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, have begun to spring up across the tech industry. Above, an entrepreneur from the accelerator Startupbootcamp, which this month launched a program in Miami focused on entrepreneurs helping underserved communities with tech healthcare startups


I am little concerned that they are putting women and minorities in silos by treating them as problems that need to be fixed or given special support, without tackling the inherent problems of the mainstream accelerator programs,” said Maura McAdam, a senior lecturer in management at Queen’s University Belfast who has done research on the diversity of startup accelerators.

Delighted to have been asked for academic comment given my expertise in the accelerator and incubator domain.