19th Uddevalla Symposium: Rethinking Leadership and Gender

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Read James’s first and second blogs on the symposium.

Trigger logoAre female leaders more efficient in family firms? Does corruption have a gendered effect on small firm performance? These are some of the questions posed at the recent Uddevalla symposium, held in the UK for the first time at Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus, between 30 June and 2 July. As part of its stated themes of ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’ the symposium took time to focus on gender inequality, with TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) holding a dedicated paper session to consider the topic.

The question of gender equality among businesses and innovators is a complex one; gender exists as a category long before we enter the workplace and carries with it a variety of social, psychological and material implications. It’s clear that increased gender diversity can have a positive effect on firm performance and, as McKinsey & Company pointed out recently, will be absolutely crucial to global economic growth in the coming years – possibly to the tune of $12 trillion by 2025. However, for both the global economy and society at large to benefit from these prospective dividends, attention must be paid to gender inequality in its current form and its attendant complexities.

Therefore, a much discussed theme of the symposium appeared not so much as, how can we honour an obligation to gender parity, but crucially, how can we unleash the huge productive potential of an equal and diverse workforce and, what are the implications for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Is leadership a gendered role?

A keynote speech from Professor Colette Henry, Head of Business and Humanities at the Dundalk Institute of Technology and CIMR Visiting Fellow, considered the position of female entrepreneurs and innovators through the prism of veterinary practitioners and researchers. Her lecture, the first keynote lecture of the three-day symposium, discussed many of the counter-intuitive features of the sector – notably that there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners, in veterinary firms, despite women accounting for over 50% of those working or studying in the sector.

Her work suggests that current innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems, despite their propensity to change and evolve, are not sufficiently addressing less visible barriers for women. Professor Henry proposes an ‘integration’ model rather than merely beefing up the curriculum with corrective modules, this, she says, is the way to instil ambitious young females with the confidence and support necessary for them to excel to male dominated positions.

It seems, therefore, that the task of encouraging female innovators and entrepreneurs is one keenly tied to changing perceptions, of decoupling innovation and entrepreneurship from gendered ideas of what makes a good leader or a successful entrepreneur.

Porous Borders

Professor Per-Olof Bjuggren’s paper ‘Are Female Leaders more Efficient in Family Firms?’ also considered how definitions of leadership intersect with wider cultural issues, this time by scrutinising family firms. Professor Bjuggren’s work situates itself at the nexus of two historically gendered leadership roles, head of the family and head of the firm, allowing us to trace the relationship between the two and, ultimately, consider the effects of their intersection.

His work found that, whilst the effect of female CEO’s in non-family firms is ambiguous, female leaders in family firms had a positive impact upon the fortunes of the business. Whilst he proposes further research to unpack this assertion, his findings are crucial to understanding how the question of leadership is not one to be solely directed at businesses, but also society and culture at large. The quest for gender equality and equity cannot be an isolated and compartmentalised pursuit, as indicated by Professor Bjuggren’s work, it must look to consider the porous borders between whom we are at home and who we are at work.

You can see the winners of the 19th Uddevalla Symposium best paper awards on their site. To see the ways in which Birkbeck are tackling gender inequality, please visit TRIGGER’s webpage, as well as viewing the various networking and mentorship programmes such as ASTREA and AURORA.

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