Although our website has been offline for a little while, due to unfortunate technical difficulties, the team at Digital Women UK has been active and engaged in furthering our research and impact agenda around women creatives and digital entrepreneurs.
As Academic Partner, I have been privileged to recently participate in the UK Digital Economy Crucible, as part of its second ever cohort. The crucible is a leadership programme developed by staff at the CHERISH-DE research project of Swansea University, and focuses on developing the skills, experience, and network of the future research leaders of the digital economy in the UK.
Through the programme, I have benefited from the mentorship of a number of accomplished individuals, availed of specialised training in working with the media, funders and policymaker and most importantly, been exposed to scientific work being done at the cutting edge of the digital economy.
While I am still far from an expert in carbon nanotubes or machine learning, working with 25 other early career researchers from a variety of disciplines, such as computer science, psychology, human-computer interaction and law, means that all of us had the chance to engage collectively with some of the contemporary problems facing computer, natural and social scientists working in the digital world.
For example, what should we do when algorithms make decisions that humans do not understand? How can we harness the power of the crowd or digital technologies to improve crowded urban environments, or address global issues such as climate change? And what will be the impact of robotics on the social, economic and labour structures of the future?
Conversely, I was able to share with my peers the surprising gaps in knowledge around the everyday digital entrepreneur, and have been encouraged to work to further distribute my research findings. Significantly, the people whom I have met through the experience have expanded my capacity and deepened my commitment to future research into the activities of the many people who are acting entrepreneurially in the online space.
There is so much we still don’t know about the landscape of online enterprise. A recent episode of the popular Note to Self podcast, which explores questions emerging from the interaction of people and digital tech, sees the presenters venture onto the Dark Web to examine the kinds of transactions taking place in the illegal and informal economy, through our broadband networks, right under our noses.
There is PhD research going on at Oxford that challenges the assumed maleness of the Dark Web, and calls attention to the many women who are engaging in entrepreneurship there. Companies such as Etsy tout the economic power of their sellers, but the range of outcomes of entrepreneurial activity via their site is bound to be quite wide.
I recently submitted a research grant proposal that intended to explore the relationships between self-employment, income, economic precarity and wellbeing. Although the proposal was ultimately unsuccessful, it was a positive experience as the reviewers spoke highly of the research area, recognising the timeliness of investigations into this phenomenon.
Crucially, it should be recognised that activity carried out in the digital economy is necessarily collective and relational, and therefore challenges the neoliberal focus on the individual entrepreneur. At the 2017 annual meeting of the Academy of Management, the largest conference of business and management scholars in the world, presenters on digital entrepreneurship underscored the potential of technology to distribute and share the responsibility for entrepreneurial activity, as well as exponentially increase its speed and expand its scope.
Considering how we are connected through digital technologies means that the persistent myth of the solo hero entrepreneur, wielding an invention that changes the world, can and should be busted for good. Contemporary research suggests entrepreneurial networks, teams and households may have even more salience than individual actors.
At the same time, these working relationships do not exist in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of social structures, hierarchy and resource access that tends to maintain the status quo rather than reconfigure it. Despite the abundance of digital technology adoption and broadband penetration, still less than 10 per cent of tech founders worldwide are women, and even fewer are people of colour.
The tech industry work environment, from which many future founders emerge, is seen to be overtly hostile to women; one must only view the recent circulation of the Google ‘Manifesto’ document for confirmation. And outside of the tech arena, extremely successful ‘mummy bloggers’ have this year been subject to harsh social judgement and misogynist criticism, the vitriolic nature of which would rarely ever be faced by middle class white male tech founders and CEOs.
So what does this mean for our work at Digital Women UK? Primarily, we must avoid the temptation to turn business success or failure into an individual issue. We must take care to look also at the social conditions of the women creatives and entrepreneurs who are supported by our Missing in Action programme, celebrating its two year anniversary in November.
While we aim to be responsive to the requests of our participants, which has resulted in well-received workshops on self-care, mindfulness, and overcoming our internal emotional barriers in our relationships to money, we must recall that helping individual women address these issues on their own does not in itself shift the structural barriers that maintain issues of social marginalisation.
Although we remember the feminist motto that the personal is political, we believe that the best way to improve social conditions is to work at both the individual and structural levels simultaneously. And while we support and encourage individual women in their personal entrepreneurial journeys, which we recognise as a political act, our long term vision includes working to establish strong and supportive business networks, promote mentoring relationships, open doors at influential organisations and develop accurate and convincing research to shift public policy to effect more institutional and lasting change.
In an era where more than ever, labour is precarious, solidarity is rare and career paths are individualised, collective trainings, like I experienced at the digital economy crucible, are invaluable. Similarly, we want Digital Women UK and our Missing in Action programme to offer both a grounding force and a gathering space where the power of collective and creative women’s energy can be harnessed to improve the conditions of everyone whom it reaches.
Dr Angela Martinez Dy is Digital Women UK’s academic partner and a lecturer and researcher in entrepreneurship at Loughborough University London.
Picture credit: Trip Advisor/Mind the Gap