By Dr Angela Martinez, Digital Women UK
Recently, while mentoring 300 undergraduate students on a business simulation programme, I was reminded just how gendered the concept of entrepreneurship is. The software, called SimVenture, is based upon the decisions of an entrepreneur in the first three years of business, trying to take a computer manufacturing company through the start-up ‘Valley of Death’ into a place of stability and growth.
The entrepreneur is visually represented by a simple green smiley face, which turns red and frustrated as it is made to work long hours, becoming tired and stressed. This seems like a reasonable depiction of the entrepreneurial condition, in which one is ultimately responsible for every single aspect of a business. However, what struck me most was the ease and frequency with which both the students and I kept referring to the supposedly gender-neutral character, illustrated by this tiny green cartoon face, as “he”.
Entrepreneurship, like most occupations, is highly gendered, which means that it is inherently shaped by dominant concepts of femininity or masculinity. This isn’t to say that the activity is necessarily dominated by one gender only, although this can sometimes be true. But that when people think of a typical person of a certain occupation, the individual pictured tends to be clearly one gender or the other, depending on the occupation.
Recall the old riddle where a boy and his father are rushed to hospital after both are critically injured in a car accident. The A&E surgeon takes one look at the child and says: “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!” The fact that most who hear this ask: ‘How can this be?” failing to realise that the surgeon is in fact the boy’s mother, illustrates the depth of gender bias associated with certain occupations. Despite the widespread entrance of women into previously male-dominated occupations, masculinity is often still the norm. Such is the case with entrepreneurship.
This uncritical association of particular occupations with certain genders is usefully explained by the theory of the historical gender division of labour. Furthermore, critical scholars have drawn attention to the masculinist, white and Western stereotypes underpinning the field of entrepreneurship. Others have questioned why we only regard certain high-perceived value activities as entrepreneurial and ignore others, or fail to acknowledge the links between entrepreneurial activity and a lack of options for employment.
Still others have pointed out that the critiques levied at women, which paint them as deficient entrepreneurs, such as an aversion to risk, are heavily context-dependent, with risk-taking surprisingly depicted as a feminine activity in 18th century England (Marlow and Swail, 2014).
In addition, feminist science and technology scholars like Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway have illustrated how science has long been masculinised, or characterised as the province of man. Judy Wajcman has pointed out how this has extended into the world of modern technology as well. This gendered conception of technology influences how we conceive of the digital sphere, and especially entrepreneurship in the online environment, where my research interests lie.
Women working in digital are therefore up against two substantial cultural barriers: we are not seen as entrepreneurial, nor are we seen as technologically savvy. But in the spirit of a recently launched art project, the …And Beyond Institute for Future Research, we transgress the boundaries of what has been expected of us, and dare to imagine new futures.
In my view, it is clear that we will continue to do so until the tide of cultural norms eventually turns. But for now, I’ll start by reminding my students, as well as myself, that the preferred pronoun for a digital or technology entrepreneur may not, in fact, be “he” after all.