Director of Entrepreneurship, Dublin City University
Digital Entrepreneurship and Gender
The rapid acceleration of digital technologies is reshaping markets and society globally. This article explains what exactly ‘digital’ is, what it means for entrepreneurship and innovation, and how women can be encouraged and empowered to become digital entrepreneurs.
The rapid acceleration of digital technologies is reshaping markets and society globally. In Ireland, whether you are a student, employee, customer, business leader, or mere observer, it seems that everyone is talking about ‘digital’. But what exactly is ‘digital’, and what does it mean for entrepreneurship and innovation?
Digital has been happening over the last twenty-five years. In entrepreneurship and innovation, the digital component relates to what Parker et al. (2016) refer to as ‘digital platforms’, which allow the development of digital start-ups and scale-ups – ventures that incorporate novel digital technology as a vital part of their business model and could not feasibly operate without it. Digitalisation is opening up fascinating opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators (McAdam et al., 2019), who are adopting digital technologies to develop new forms of entrepreneurial actions that move beyond traditional industry boundaries.
Digital entrepreneurship, ‘the pursuit of opportunities based on the use of digital media and other information and communication technologies’ (Davidson and Vaast, 2010, p. 2), is a socio-economic and technological phenomenon that can be considered as the use of digital technologies to shift the traditional way of creating and doing business. It is widespread and growing in internet-connected societies. It is a popular form of entrepreneurship, because it can lower the normal barriers to entry when starting a business, reduce overheads, provide access to a global customer base, and increase the flexibility of work. Digital technology is an important ‘external enabler’ of new-venture creation, reducing the time and resources needed in creating disruptive or radically new products or services.
Entrepreneurs and innovators in Ireland are adopting digital technologies such as social media, mobile, business analytics, Internet of Things, big data, advanced manufacturing, 3D printing, cloud, and artificial intelligence to develop new forms of entrepreneurial actions. Nambisan (2017) argues that digital technologies are not simply tools to facilitate entrepreneurship; rather, they are fundamentally changing the boundaries of entrepreneurial processes and outcomes.
Digital technology is therefore posited as a source of significant disruptive transformation in entrepreneurship. As my research shows, however, a broad view of digital entrepreneurship, not limited to ‘high-tech’ entrepreneurship, is necessary if we are to fully understand the wider social and economic impact of digital technology (McAdam et al., 2018; McAdam et al., 2019).
Levelling the playing for women
Digital entrepreneurship has been described as a ‘great leveler’ (Dy et al., 2017), leading to the democratisation of entrepreneurship, as entrepreneurs benefit from greater access to ideas, potential customers, and necessary resources (Nambisan, 2017). The incorporation of digital architectures (e.g., online communities, social media) and artefacts (digital components, applications, media content) means that spatial and temporal boundaries – when and where activities are carried out – are less constrained, and product and service opportunities are constantly evolving (Nambisan, 2017).
Digitalisation is opening up fascinating opportunities for entrepreneurs and innovators.
In addition, internet attributes of convenience, ease of use, large audience reach, anonymity, and interactivity mean that digital entrepreneurship offers great potential for groups who face barriers to engagement in bricks-and-mortar entrepreneurship. Indeed, digital entrepreneurship can facilitate the engagement of marginalised groups, one such being women, since online platforms develop their own social and contractual frameworks that are often independent of local restrictions (McAdam et al., 2019). Digital platforms can thus provide women with greater access to markets and knowledge, more flexible working arrangements, and greater reach to customers.
More generally, cyberfeminism research, which examines the relationship between women and digital technology, has highlighted the potential of the internet as a forum for women’s empowerment and emancipation (Rosser, 2005). It suggests that the internet, with its protection of individual privacy, may provide a ‘safe space’ for negotiating the challenges that women encounter in their daily lives offline (Daniels, 2009), given that online they can be body-less, sex-less, and gender-less.
Research insight: Women’s digital entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia
My research explored the emancipatory possibilities of digital entrepreneurship for women constrained by social and cultural practices, such as male guardianship of female relatives and legally enforced gender segregation: specifically, how women in Saudi Arabia use digital technologies in pursuit of entrepreneurial opportunities. The findings reveal that women in Saudi Arabia do not use the online environment to escape embodiment but to transform their lived realities by providing a ‘safe space’ to challenge social and cultural norms in terms of the behaviours permissible to and expected of women.
The women in this research were digital natives, fluent in digital technology, who used digital tools to circumvent restrictions in the offline world, such as gender segregation and limited mobility due to male guardianship. Digital tools and technology thus provide a means to navigate these social and cultural practices, which have historically been limited to women’s paid work outside the home. In choosing to engage in entrepreneurship rather than enter into traditional occupational roles for women, such as teaching or other government service, women are fundamentally changing their social position, particularly in their family relationships.
Hence, in navigating boundaries and pursuing their entrepreneurial ambitions, the female entrepreneurs became agents of change. However, while digital entrepreneurship may have transformational potential, it is not a ‘magic’, individualised solution addressing embedded patriarchal systems. As such, its transformative potential is constrained by women’s individual circumstances, with family support or at least acquiescence being a prerequisite.
One of the key outputs from this research was a multi-tier model (see image) that can be applied across geographical contexts, including Ireland. It is explained further in McAdam et al. (2019).
No place for young girls?
Women represent just 20% of tertiary graduates in the natural sciences, engineering, and ICT disciplines, which are particularly relevant for the digital era (OECD, 2015, 2016). Stereotypical expectations of masculinity and technology have been given significant explanatory value, to the exclusion of women in these technological fields. Indeed, young girls’ interest in and enthusiasm for digital entrepreneurship and leadership are often damaged by stereotyping, cultural discouragement, peer pressure, and lack of role models, resulting in a lack of confidence to engage with entrepreneurship, leadership, and technology. Underrepresentation of women’s technology entrepreneurship is a significant problem globally, with only 5–15% of high-technology businesses owned by women. It is the focus of the Irish Research Council–co-funded GENRE project.1
One factor is the entrenched stereotypes that are passed on to children by their families, teachers, and society at large, with technology seen as part of a masculine script and deemed an essential part of boys’ upbringing. Promoting positive role models and enhancing digital skills among girls are therefore important in tackling the gender gap and boosting female participation in science, technology, and business. It is essential to empower women entrepreneurs and to nurture women leaders by increasing the number of girls aged 12–18 years interested in technology, innovation, digitalisation, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
A cautionary tale
Recent research suggests that digital technology’s potential to facilitate entrepreneurship for marginalised groups may be overstated, in that it remains a resource-based activity, requiring capital investment, technical knowledge, access to online marketplaces, and supporting hardware and software (Dy et al., 2017, 2018). In fact, there is evidence of a ‘gender digital divide’, wherein some women entrepreneurs, due to lack of digital literacy, skills, access, and resources, are excluded from the opportunities and benefits offered by digital technologies.
Promoting positive role models and enhancing digital skills among girls are therefore important in tackling the gender gap.
Policy can play an important role in creating a more inclusive digital world by improving access to digital technologies and by giving people the skills necessary to thrive in the digital era. The Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE), which has been adopted in Ireland, focuses on modern technologies and online services that will allow Europe to create jobs and promote economic prosperity.
To understand the true potential of digital entrepreneurship for Irish society and its economy, more attention must be paid to everyday interactions with digital technology, leading to the creation of new business ventures, often outside of high-technology industries. Specifically, it is important to understand how the ubiquity and everyday experiences of digital technology provide opportunities for innovation. Advances in digital technology offer significant potential for women to engage in entrepreneurship, but as my research demonstrates, these opportunities exist within the confines of existing social and cultural practices.
Daniels, J. (2009) ‘Rethinking cyberfeminism(s): Race, gender, and embodiment’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 37(1/2), 101–124.
Davidson, E. and Vaast, E. (2010) ‘Digital entrepreneurship and its sociomaterial enactment’. In: Proceedings of the 2010 43rd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 1–10. Hawaii, 5–8 January. IEEE.
Dy, A.M., Marlow, S., and Martin, L. (2017) ‘A Web of opportunity or the same old story? Women digital entrepreneurs and intersectionality theory’, Human Relations, 70(3), 286–311.
Dy, A.M., Martin, L., and Marlow, S. (2018) ‘Emancipation through digital entrepreneurship? A critical realist analysis’, Organization, 25(5), 585–608.
McAdam, M., Crowley, C., and Harrison, H. (2018) ‘The emancipatory potential of female digital entrepreneurship: Institutional voids in Saudi Arabia’, Academy of Management Proceedings, 1. doi: 10.5465/AMBPP.2018.58
McAdam, M., Crowley, C., and Harrison, R.T. (2019) ‘“To boldly go where no [man] has gone before”: Institutional voids and the development of women’s digital entrepreneurship’, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 146, 912–922.
Nambisan, S. (2017) ‘Digital entrepreneurship: Toward a digital technology perspective of entrepreneurship’, Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 41(6), 1029–1055.
OECD (2015) The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence. Paris: OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/9789264229945-en
OECD (2016) Education at a Glance 2016. Paris: OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/eag-2016-en
Parker, G.G., Van Alstyne, M.W., and Choudary, S.P. (2016) Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work for You. W.W. Norton & Company.
Rosser, S.V. (2005) ‘Through the lenses of feminist theory: Focus on women and information technology’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 26(1), 1–23.
Overcoming the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Gender Divide: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. This is a GENDER-NET Plus Era-Net Cofund project which has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 741874.