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The race to plug the female digital enterprise gap

The race to plug the female digital enterprise gap January 12, 2016Leave a comment

The digital economy and academia is a far from natural pairing. One moves forward at a lightning-fast pace while the other is notoriously slow. One is based in the world of practice and application while the other is a stickler for the relevance of theory. Yet despite this apparent disconnect, there is potential, and necessity, for the two realms to inform each other.

We rely on research to give us the data we need to shape policy and public discourse, which have profound effects on the world of practice. Unless this research is grounded in the realities of digital enterprise as they are experienced by practitioners, it will be incorrect, at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So for most fields, and especially business and enterprise studies, it’s essential to create a virtuous circle where the realities facing female entrepreneurs can inform theory and vice versa. But the problem with making this happen is obvious: academics conduct research on business owners and companies then publish their findings in restricted journals which are unavailable to most business owners.

Even if such texts were widely available, they are likely to be written using language so far removed from the world of enterprise that entrepreneurs may not even recognise themselves or their stories. This means that academics are producing knowledge which is largely not serving the communities they study, but instead themselves and other academics. Rather than the desired virtuous circle, what is produced is a closed feedback loop where academics debate only with each other.

Despite being a central source of knowledge, practitioners are routinely left out of the wider conversation. This poses professional and ethical issues, as these key stakeholders are treated as a resource instead of partners in knowledge creation. As a result, they don’t have priority in academic spaces commensurate to the value of their input, so academia as a whole remains out of touch with what is taking place in the world of digital enterprise.

This is even more problematic when researching inequality and social marginality in entrepreneurial experiences, as those who suffer the unequal effects of social structures are once again treated in an oppressive manner by people and institutions with greater privilege and status. Marginalised entrepreneurs’ experiences are literally mined for evidence supporting or disproving academic theories, yet they are significantly more often spoken for than allowed to speak for themselves.

While digital-based tools to research the digital economy do exist and are increasing in number and form, they are still not widely used in business and management or entrepreneurship studies. Knowledge of how to effectively mine digital data is still contained primarily within information and computer science departments.

Entrepreneurship studies still relies heavily either on two primary methods: analysis of secondary data about business opening and closure, which tends to lack significant and relevant detail, and mostly ignores the many individuals who are acting entrepreneurially online outside of formal business contexts, or qualitative data. Though rich in detail, it’s limited in its ability to speak definitively about trends experienced across populations.

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In more ways than one, it seems that business studies is facing a call to modernise its methodologies, or get left behind. One possible starting point for getting to grips with where we are is, perhaps ironically, by setting aside the digital tools for the moment and gathering people from the two communities in common spaces to actually talk to each other.

Most IRL (in real life) entrepreneurship conferences are aimed primarily at either academics or practitioners. Very few seem able to effectively bring the two together. Of course, there is some overlap as some individuals may have worked in both fields, but in general, it seems never the twain shall meet.

What may be needed are bespoke events aimed at both groups which offer value for both researchers and practitioners. This means researchers can learn about what issues practitioners are facing, while practitioners can learn from industry experts and each other.

By adopting this approach, the needs of both groups may be addressed and their combined expertise put to use for the wider benefit and the development of targeted support. Recently, I collaborated with Digital Women UK to deliver one such event.

Missing in Action: Women and Digital Enterprise in the UK took place over two days at Nottingham University Business School on 21 and 22 November 2015. The event’s title reflects the fact that we still know too little about the many women who are working on their own digital businesses in the UK, from casual eBayers to creative professionals to high-tech startups.

Eleven speakers presented and interacted with a mixture of attendees, including practitioners, aspiring digital entrepreneurs and academics interested in the field. We realised that lack of childcare is often a barrier to women’s participation and so made it a point to provide childcare via Nottinghamshire Nannies, a mobile nannying service.

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The programme featured exclusively filmed interviews with industry leaders such as Jaqueline de Rojas, president of TechUK, keynote speeches from women organising mentorship programs to support young women in tech and STEM, coaching workshops and topical roundtable discussions, guided by the interests and concerns of the participants. The full programme of the day can be seen here.

The event brought some key issues and topics to the surface, such as what challenges women working in digital are facing, including the fear factor, the lack of knowledge, support and training, a variety of money issues, such as wanting it, making it, talking about it and relating to it, as well as the impostor syndrome and perfectionism.

There was also concern around the invisibility and devaluing of home-based work, and the insecurity of self-employment. However, not content with identifying problems, the second day was dedicated to strategies and solutions, such as goal setting, accessing skill-building resources, seeking partnership, outsourcing, mentorship and just getting going.

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Feedback received by the participants emphasised the quality of the roundtable discussions and the benefit they gained from the keynote presentations. A very active and vibrant online discussion took place alongside the in-person meeting via the Twitter hashtag #missinginaction15, which features of hundreds of tweets. A selection of the commentary can be seen on Storify. Upon participant request, we also set up a Facebook page where conversations could continue.

It wasn’t only the participants who benefited; the speakers also noted what they had learned from the event and how valuable they found it. Following the event, three attendees (one speaker and two participants) wrote the following blog posts about their experience of the event and how it changed their way of thinking:

Josephine Goube, co-managing director, Girls in Tech, Harriet Mupungu, aspiring digital entrepreneur and Heloise De Nantes, former Yahoo employee and aspiring digital entrepreneur.

One challenge we did face was that despite attracting over 7,000 page hits on the Digital Women UK site and securing great Twitter traction, there was lower-than-expected attendance. However, conversations with participants and speakers who had experience of organising tech-related events in Nottingham confirmed the challenges around in-person meetups for women in tech in the region, leaving the East Midlands underserved in this respect.

A Nottingham-based entrepreneur who spoke at the event admitted that when trying to promote it at local tech-based events, she was often the only woman there. This further underscores the relevance of our event and the importance of holding it in an area outside of London, where women’s tech Meetups are more numerous and accessible.

Overall, we were pleased to have taken an important step towards helping to fill the information vacuum, developing a foundation for future research and more inclusive and impactful knowledge-sharing.

Main picture credit: Women Entrepreneurs|LinkedIn
Additional picture credits:, and Adrianne McKenzie


About the author

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Dr Angela Martinez Dy

Dr Angela Martinez Dy is a lecturer and researcher in Entrepreneurship at the Glendonbrook Centre for Enterprise Development, Loughborough University. She received her MSc in Entrepreneurship in 2010 and PhD in 2015 from Nottingham University Business School. Originally from Seattle, she is the co-founder and former director of Youth Speaks Seattle, the city’s premier youth creative writing and performance organisation. Her research interests include entrepreneurship, the Internet, digital technologies and online environments, gender, feminism, critical race studies and philosophy. Angela uses an intersectional feminist perspective to understand social dynamics, and the ways that technology impacts society, especially the world of work.

Find out more about Dr Angela Martinez Dy’s research or follow her on Twitter: @eldiadia

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