Gender, Entrepreneurship and Innovation: Similarity and difference

This post was contributed by members of the Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) team – a research project in Birkbeck’s Department of Management – following a ‘Gender, Entrepreneurship and Innovation’ networking event at the Centre for Innovation, Research and Competence in the Learning Economy (CIRCLE) at Lund University, Sweden., Monday, November 30

TRIGGER - CIRCLE event. (Photo courtesy of Lucinda David)

TRIGGER – CIRCLE event. (Photo courtesy of Lucinda David)

This international panel was made up of people with differing expertise in gender, entrepreneurship and innovation. It included academics whose roles are to support female entrepreneurship, those who have first-hand experience of supporting the gender equality process in the university setting, those whose roles had been to fund gender sensitive research and those who research gender differences.

The mixture of experience led to interesting perspectives and insights on women’s attitudes towards entrepreneurship and career development more generally. A key theme raised by Henry Etzkowitz was similarity and/or difference:

Under what conditions do women want similarity or want differences from men in the way they are perceived and supported?

The panellists were:

  • Professor Asa Lindholm Dahlstrand, Circle (Lund University) and expert on entrepreneurship
  • Professor Helen Lawton Smith, TRIGGER project, Birkbeck
    Professor Carin Holmquist, Stockholm School of Economics (SSE): first chairwoman of the SSE Business Lab
  • Professor Per Eriksson, Lund University, former head of Vinnova, now Lund University
  • Helena Ljusberg, Senior Business Developer, Lund University Innovation Support System
  • Dr Cristina Glad, Former Executive VP, BioInvent International AB
  • Dr Linnea Taylor, WINGS (Women In Great Sciences), Lund University
  • Professor Henry Etzkowitz, Stanford University & Birkbeck, Author of Athena Unbound

Differences are not in people, but in structures

On similarity and the issue of perception of what women entrepreneurs do, Carin Holmquist forcibly made the point that women are driving business as much as men. She argued that there is no difference between male/female entrepreneurs. It is time to stop making assumptions about the peculiarities / needs of women entrepreneurs: differences are not in people, but in structures. She cited Tiger Woods, “I am the human race”. However, there is a tendency to disadvantage women as role models. Often when thinking of an entrepreneur, male entrepreneur figures, such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson come up. Even though women do not set up big hi-tech giant companies, they set up other types of business, which are not often seen as “innovation”. Successful entrepreneurship is what creates value and/or employment regardless of whether “technical” or “soft”.

Women and men are similarly gifted at identifying markets and handling customers. The issue is not about including women in, but more about accepting women’s ideas. Nowadays, as Cristina Gad pointed out, there are many more role models, both male and female, and very good activities for researchers who want to become entrepreneurs as well as mentoring programmes on commercialisation of research. For example at Lund, Helena Ljusburg told about a support programme on entrepreneurship called “Innovation Toolbox”. It is a network of organisations to support innovation including a laboratory incubator. But it is important how women define themselves (for example as an engineer, or as a woman engineer?)

Differences in career development

All is not easy, however. On differences in how women approach career development, it was agreed that women and men behave differently when applying for a job or for promotion. Men can be much more pushy while women are more afraid to step up. Inequality is reinforced where there is a bias in various committees, especially funding bodies, where men sit on the board and look at the process. There are obvious different outcomes of processes if more women are involved in the promotion committees.

Women are also disadvantaged in their careers by differences in perception about maternity leave. Linnea Taylor finds that men are celebrated as a role model if taking up paternity leave but it is expected that a woman will take up 100% maternity leave. Carin Holmquist argued that a main reason for women in founding a company is to combine work and family. There is a danger of the discourse about women and men being equal and the same where there are different cultural and practical circumstances. But women can do more to help themselves. Helena Ljusberg who supports women entrepreneurs said that it is important for female founders to learn leadership skills, and how to delegate tasks to others.

For Per Eriksson the main lesson learned in supporting the careers of other people is that you tend to help people you like and that look like you. He started a gender pilot at Vinnova. He also appointed a woman as a deputy and he termed it as “job marriage”. For him it was a huge learning experience because of the opportunity to learn from the difference and complementarity between male/female.

Gender paradox

In Sweden as elsewhere, inequality encountered by female immigrants is an issue of difference. Even for well-qualified ones, female immigrants generally have far fewer career opportunities: as shown by Eurostat data, the female foreigner is less likely to have access to social networks.

From the discussion it seems as if there is a “gender paradox”. Many speakers mentioned the importance of networking with the like-minded female while others mentioned about complementarity (working with males). The answer to the question of under what conditions do women want similarity and under what conditions women want difference is “it depends”. If it is access to money, then the answer is working with a man. It is usually men that are the brokers of finance. However, Henry Etzkowitz argued, it is vital to recognise that the informal channels or social networks should be gender blind. Access to informal connections helps regardless of gender.

Find out more

This article was written on Wednesday, 7 December by Helen Lawton Smith, Ning Baines, Viviana Meschitti, Asa Lindholm Dahlstrand


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