The Scientific Reproduction of Gender Inequality: A Discourse Analysis of Research Texts on Women's Entrepreneurship

By Finnegan, Gerry | International Labour Review, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Scientific Reproduction of Gender Inequality: A Discourse Analysis of Research Texts on Women's Entrepreneurship


Finnegan, Gerry, International Labour Review


The scientific reproduction of gender inequality: A discourse analysis of research texts on women's entrepreneurship. By Helene AHL. Stockhom, Liber/Copenhagen, Copenhagen Business School Press/Oslo, Abstrakt Forlag, 2004. 235 pp. ISBN 91-47-07424-8 (Sweden). ISBN 87-630-0123-3 (all other countries).

The title is something of a jaw-breaker. Definitely an academic text. Had I not seen the words "women's entrepreneurship" in the title, I would probably have passed up on the opportunity to review this gem of a book. Where to start? Perhaps with a few comments on gender equality and its practical implications for many women who try to start and grow their own enterprises.

The view persists in many quarters that laws, regulations and programmes are fair in themselves, in so far as they apply equally to both women and men. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence is often used in attempts to illustrate gender equality in practice. "My wife's sister is a very successful entrepreneur" ... therefore the business environment does not discriminate against women. Liberia has a woman as President ... therefore gender equality exists in Liberia. However, the reality in most countries - and developing countries in particular - is rather different. For example, the African Development Bank and the World Bank/ International Finance Corporation have done an admirable job in documenting the extent of discrimination facing women - and female entrepreneurs in particular - in Uganda.1

The ILO created a number of InFocus Programmes in 1999, and each of these was charged with adopting a three-pronged strategy: developing a knowledge base; advocating for change; and providing support services and tools. The InFocus Programme on Boosting Employment through Small Enterprise Development (IFP/SEED) systematically applied these strategies to good effect. The seeD team working on Women's Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality (WEDGE) has produced a large number of documents and reports on the situation of women entrepreneurs, and these are of both general and country-specific interest.2 The resulting knowledge base has made the ILO's web pages on "women's entrepreneurship" among the most frequently visited. This enhanced knowledge base has indeed proved to be a powerful tool in shedding light on otherwise unknown or under-researched areas, in debunking much of the rhetoric and myth surrounding women in business, and most importantly in informing the ILO's supportive actions.

"Why special support for women?", is a question that is often asked. The focus on women is aimed at redressing the equality gaps and lack of attention given by other small enterprise programmes to the needs and circumstances of women entrepreneurs. However, throughout the ILO's WEDGE work it has become apparent that the task of ending discrimination facing women entrepreneurs is a difficult one. It is all too easy to look at women-owned small businesses and compare their economic performance to those owned by men, and in the process ignore many of the underlying barriers, constraints and disadvantages that women experience in business. The majority of researchers and academics have been trained and graduated through schools that are at best gender blind. The favoured research processes and instruments are largely based on male-constructed models and methodologies. The ILO's continuing work in this field has sometimes been frustrated by the researchers and consultants who have been engaged, and who promote this male-constructed economic view of the business world -sometimes unwittingly.

In this context, the work of Ms Ahl is a reassuring breath of fresh air. Here is a committed academic who thoroughly and systematically immersed herself in state-of-the-art research papers and texts in the field of entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on women's entrepreneurship. Not only has she reviewed and assessed a vast number of refereed research papers, but she also demonstrates her skills as a sleuth by investigating the journals themselves: their editorial boards, their reviewing processes and their panels of referees.

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