Improving Access for Women in Business and Innovation

Improving Access for Women in Business and Innovation

By Jessica Milli, Ph.D.

Previous IWPR research has indicated that fewer than 20 percent of all U.S. patents have at least one woman listed as an inventor. In July, IWPR released two new reports which built on this earlier work, examining the gap in innovative activities more broadly among businesses owned by women and men and the implications for business outcomes, and profiling programs aimed at promoting women’s greater participation in patenting and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship has become increasingly common among women. The number of businesses owned by women grew at nearly four times the rate of men between 1997 and 2015, and this growth was driven almost entirely by women of color. Yet despite these gains, women-owned businesses still lag behind men. Previous research has shown that intellectual property rights are associated with greater success in raising start-up capital as well as increased market value, yet women-owned businesses are less likely to hold intellectual property and engage in research and development activities. Women owned businesses, for example, are only half as likely to hold a patent as men.

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Recognizing the gender gap in innovation and its economic and social consequences, a number of programs across the country have been developed to address women’s underrepresentation. Among them, IWPR identified Improving Access for Women in Business and Innovation seven promising programs and conducted in-depth interviews with program leaders and participants to learn more about how they operated in different settings, served different audiences, and tackled the barriers women face from a variety of angles. The interviews highlighted the importance of education about patenting and commercialization, network building and mentorship, and working with stakeholders in local communities.

Both reports highlight the importance of promoting greater diversity in the innovative ecosystem. Diverse groups of people experience the world differently and encounter different challenges, and when those groups don’t have a seat at the table, problems can easily be overlooked, and the solutions developed may not work for everyone.

 

Author Finds Technology a Tool Not a Solution in Bridging Divide

By Leah Josephson

People often describe the “digital divide” in terms of high-income individuals’ having access to cutting-edge technology that helps them thrive socially and economically, while low-income individuals are left out. The divide is often cited as a significant source of economic inequality.

At a recent event at Busboys and Poets, Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, critiqued this diagnosis as overly simplistic. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Teaching for Change, and DC Jobs with Justice.

Eubanks worked with a group of low-income women who are members of the YWCA community in Troy, NY, and asked the women what they needed. The main problem was not the digital divide. Instead, “more buses, less racism, and fairer employment” were the most popular calls for help.

Eubanks expected these women to have few technological skills. Instead, she found two-thirds of them already working in high-tech jobs, such as data entry or network administration. However, these jobs were low-paying, had few benefits, and were unstable. Technology was ubiquitous in their lives, but they could not use it to improve those lives.

Eubanks realized that simply providing technology and training is not enough to improve women’s lives. Rather, projects need to be designed to account for deeply ingrained racial and gender oppression.

Eubanks, informed by the belief that those closest to problems can best find solutions, worked closely with the women to identify their needs. They created a community technology lab for the YWCA, staffed and sustained by residents, as well as what Eubanks called an “Angie’s List for social services providers,” where the women could provide feedback on their experiences at local assistance agencies.

Even so, access to tech tools was not a high priority for the women. They were more concerned with the basic structural and cultural challenges that affected them on a daily basis—a lack of reliable transportation and workplace flexibility, coupled with racist attitudes.

Eubanks emphasized that technology in itself cannot cure these problems, but it can play a positive role. “We all have a stake in the creation of a more just information age,” she said.

Eubanks noted the creation of new, high-end jobs in technological development—touted by politicians including President Obama as the solution to our country’s economic woes—requires the support of more service industry positions in food service, hospitality, and retail. These lower-income jobs must be fair, provide benefits, and allow for work-life balance to meet the needs of workers.

IWPR has identified other basic benefits that can drastically improve the quality of workers’ lives in the shorter term. For women and their families, guaranteed paid maternity leave (the U.S. is one of only five countries worldwide that doesn’t require employers to provide it) and paid sick days could improve health, well-being, and economic stability.

Pay equity is another problem Eubanks identified. The women would often accept minimal compensation for high-tech jobs, hoping to gain the skills necessary for a higher-paid position. In a society where open discussion of salary is often taboo, these women had little opportunity to identify and express grievances, and only rarely advanced in the workplace.

“Technology is not a destination, it’s another site for struggle,” said Eubanks. In making technological advancements we should consider the quality of life of the workers who perform and enable it. Technology can contribute to a more just society, as long as the privileged consciously use it as a tool to support social justice, and not a ready-made engine of social progress.

Leah Josephson is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org