The 2013 inaugural Power Shift Forum, held here in Oxford last May, was an intense experience. Though many of the people who attended had never met each other, all of them were actively engaged in (and passionate about) some aspect of women’s entrepreneurship. This group was enthusiastic about the potential for women, as individuals, to reach autonomy through entrepreneurship, but also for women, as a class, to be empowered by “growing” the number of businesses owned by females, worldwide.
Despite the palpable passion and inspiring optimism in this group, they were also concerned about the barriers and challenges—and the paucity of data and research that exists to offer guidance. One reason is that they themselves—engaged, as most of them are, in some kind of concrete activity in this area—are learning that acting on behalf of women is often difficult and sometimes has unexpected outcomes. Yet the difficulties and outcomes seem to have a pattern—in particular, they often appear to have a systematic relationship to gender arrangements.
The need for research is clear, but so is the need to share experiences, whether successful or not, among those institutions and individuals who are actually engaging with this phenomenon on the ground. And by “on the ground” I do not mean to suggest that knowledge is needed only about remote, less developed contexts. Data and research about women entrepreneurs in the “developed world” exists, but this work is plagued by measurement problems and analytical gender bias. So we need to know more about women “on the ground” in Europe and North America, too.
The synthesis we attempted at the last session, therefore, was instructive, as it highlighted the issues this group thought were important, as well as pointing to the direction they wanted to travel. I want to summarize these here and report back on what has been happening since the Forum.
Demand for Data
Without question, the most crucial issue in the minds of the Power Shift community is data. More and better information is needed at the macro-level (as in cross-national statistics that allow comparisons), but also at the most individual level (as in case studies that explain why a particular intervention did or did not work). We acknowledged in this session that the effort to fill in the gaps will necessarily be massive and long term–and will require both cross-institutional and cross-sectoral collaborations.
Sharing Research and Leadership
I did say that Oxford would try to take the lead on this data business. To that end, I have been engaged with teams of academics as well as potential corporate partners and am hoping to be able to have something concrete to report by the end of the academic year. Several of the academics who helped with the conference are keen to try and form a research leadership group, seated at Oxford, to provide the leverage on this work. And I do think we may be able to carry that off.
In addition, I continue to be very keen on trying to find a way that corporates engaged in this work can share what they are learning without being exposed to some kind of press relations nightmare. I have some ideas for creating that shared space, and, yes, I am actively working on it. (If you have ideas of your own, please post below, as I am keen to have more input.)
Means to Communicate
The group also wanted to have a means to talk to each other. After getting advice from others who have tried to set up similar community communications, we felt the best thing was to set up a LinkedIn group for the Power Shift Forum participants. We have done this. So far, just under 100 people have signed on and there has been dialogue already. I am hoping, now that the summer is over, to try and stimulate more discussion, especially as we are going into planning mode for the 2014 conference very soon.
One reason people were keen to keep in touch was that some attendees had promised to take on new initiatives in the wake of the forum. There needed to be a way to report back on these efforts. I am happy to say that we have already received one such report, from Prasad Ramakrishnan of Triumph International. I am very excited about what Prasad’s team has accomplished even in this short time. He has sent me a bunch of information that I am now distilling into a blog post. This report will happen very soon.
Content for Next Year
We resolved that next year’s topic would be on women and finance, but added a special effort to include the potential facilitating effect of technology. The 2014 SBS planning team will meet next week. I then plan to begin talking to people about what should be included under the broad umbrella of “finance.” I will be posting some thoughts during the next few weeks or months. However, anyone can post in response to this blog and I welcome suggestions.
For instance, I happened to meet a US professor who is an expert on pyramid schemes at a conference in Copenhagen soon after Power Shift. He is keen to impress on policy makers the need to protect the public against the propagators of these financial illusions. And he tells me two thirds of the victims are women. Should we include this topic? And, ok, what about credit card debt?
There were men in attendance at the Power Shift Forum and still more men were behind the scenes supporting the women who were there. It is clear that the movement to empower women economically is now a global community effort and not just a “girl thing.” But we did resolve in this final session to attend to the need to have more visible male participation in the future.
We resolved to bring in some of the male leadership from the finance sector to answer questions about the clearly visible gender bias in access to capital around the world. I am determined to do this, but am a bit worried no one will want to face the music. We have many contacts in this domain, but I would be glad to know if anyone has a particular person they would like to nominate to address the issue.
A concern repeated throughout the conference was that we needed to clarify some concepts. The one that seemed most in need of focus was “confidence.”
Women are continually criticized for not having enough confidence, particularly when it comes to scaling up companies or even applying for higher level jobs. But what do we really mean by those criticisms? One participant, from Cambridge, remarked that she felt we usually meant “self-efficacy” when we talked about “confidence.” “Self-efficacy” is something that is well defined and researched often in academics and we would benefit by a summary of that work. I may consider inviting someone to speak to this issue.
But I think sometimes when we talk about “having confidence” in the context of business, we really mean something more like “risk tolerant.” And, I personally think that, a lot of the time, women are seen to be lacking confidence when they are actually making a realistic assessment of their comparative chances for success.
One example that always comes up is that women only apply for jobs if they have all the qualifications for it, while men will apply if they have only two-thirds of the qualifications. But we also know that employers will discount the qualifications of women. This outcome has been shown in several studies where gender neutral resumes are given either male or female names. Women simply do have to be better qualified than all the male applicants to get the job. So maybe this difference in the circumstances under which women versus men apply for jobs is not about women lacking confidence, but is a realistic reflection of the bias in their prospects.
Gender Lens Rating System
One specific question was whether a rating system could be developed for investing from a gender perspective. This “gender lens investing” is a real thing, but no scale has been developed yet. I am going to a confab on the topic, led by Criterion Institute, in October. And, I have a new doctoral student coming in the same month who will make this scale the topic of her dissertation. I think we will definitely have something to report to the Forum in 2014 and I feel pretty confident that we will be able to put on a workshop or something.
Dealing with the Press
A long term concern is how to deal with the attitude of the press to these empowerment programs, especially when they are funded by or initiated by corporations. It was clear to me that the Chatham House rule, under which the 2013 Forum proceeded, was key to the Forum’s success. The rule made it safe for people to be candid, to share their results, to express their worries, and so on. I think we will go forward on that basis for next year. However, I am wondering if we should actually try to structure some kind of panel on the topic, with press to answer questions from this group, about how they approach this topic and how the climate might be improved.
Gender and economics are both complex issues on their own, but when you bring them together and locate them in a place, you begin to need to know all kinds of things about culture, religion, history, and so on. The group felt a more expansive lens was needed to get this right. So, it’s on us to try and bring in representation from other disciplines on the next go round. And, actually, that should be really a pleasant task. I decided to begin by contacting Jane Humphries, right here at Oxford, and hope she’ll have a coffee with me soon. And I’ll just keep rolling from there!