The Reality Of The Female Digital Entrepreneur

By Dr Angela Martinez, Digital Women UK

What do selling clothes online, being a self employed social media manager and developing a peer-to-peer lending platform have in common? All three activities are examples of what has come to be known as digital entrepreneurship.

Defined as entrepreneurial activity that takes place primarily through digital media, this phenomenon is widespread and growing within Internet-connected societies. It is a popular form of entrepreneurship for a number of reasons: it is assumed to lower the normal barriers to entry when starting a business, reduce overheads, provide access to a seemingly unlimited global customer base and increase the flexibility of work.

However, while the benefits of digital enterprise may be realised in some cases, they are not available across the board, and in many ways are part of the myths surrounding entrepreneurship in the 21st century.

In recent times, entrepreneurship has become a buzzword for all things bright and beautiful. Being entrepreneurial is associated with innovation and creativity, spotting opportunities to do things better and bringing exciting concepts into being that never before existed.

We are told that the luxuries of being one’s own boss and building a business out of doing what we love far exceed the risks of an unreliable income, the start-up valley of death, and no promise of a pension.

Digital entrepreneurship is seen as embodying the best of these entrepreneurial possibilities – being the cheapest, most flexible way to get a new business going, when all you need is access to the Internet and a good idea.

This is why digital entrepreneurship is particularly relevant to women, who are still more likely to be primary care providers for children and elders, and may be more inclined to seek part-time or flexible working schedules, the successful implementation of which can be beneficial to the wider economy.

But there is very little data on how many women are engaging in entrepreneurial activity online. Most research on digital entrepreneurship tends to be focused on high-tech, high-growth start-up companies, where women make up, on average, only 10 per cent of founders worldwide.

Lower-growth, feminised sectors in which women dominate, such as craft-based online businesses, are under-represented in mainstream research. What’s more, the majority of research into women’s entrepreneurship tends to portray women entrepreneurs as less ambitious and less capable than men, although this is patently untrue.

Women of colour are making great strides as entrepreneurs

It is also often superficial in its attention to women of colour, despite evidence from the US that women of colour are now the driving force behind rising rates of women’s entrepreneurship, a result of structural challenges encountered in traditional workplaces.

The notion of women working flexibly, often from home, is not new. Women have been engaging in piecework for centuries and telework for decades. Digital entrepreneurship by women can be seen as the contemporary manifestation of a traditional labour divide which is meant to enable us to earn an income while still attending to the demands of unpaid household labour.

But whereas in the past, it was poor and working class women who took on piecework, entrepreneurship is now seen by many as a solution to employment issues for women of all backgrounds, with digital entrepreneurship in particular drawing extensive government support.

However, the overwhelming conclusion of research into self employment by women, particularly mothers, is that it is more likely to intensify activity in both work and family spheres rather than resolve the tensions between the two. For women without children, high levels of intensity are still present, as many describe the challenges of their businesses being “open” 24/7 and finding it difficult to “switch off”.

There are undoubtedly numerous success stories of digital entrepreneurs who describe pursuing their entrepreneurial goals as the best choice they ever made. But what about those who were convinced that online businesses were easy, and only found out after investing significant time, energy and resources that this was far from the case?

My own research has shown that social positionality – the location in the social strata one occupies as a result of intersecting categories such as gender, race and class, and the lived experiences this generates – has a significant impact on the digital entrepreneurship journey. In other words, access to both tangible and intangible offline resources is still relevant online and poses unique sets of challenges to individuals in different social positions.

Simple access to the Internet is not enough to ‘level the playing field’, as may be expected.