An Exploration of Human Rights and Feminist Critiques in Digital Entrepreneurship

Initially published as an assessment under the Master of Human Rights at Curtin University.

{As you might know, I am currently studying a Master of Human Rights at Curtin University. I know some readers have been interested in learning more about what I’m studying, so I thought I would occasionally publish previous assignments that I’ve written on the blog on areas that might be of interest. These posts are of course written in the context of a university assessment with marking criteria, word limits, and learning outcomes.} 

Introduction

Digital entrepreneurship and human rights might seem to be unrelated disciplines. Entrepreneurs are generally depicted as enterprising individuals who pursue innovative and lucrative opportunities for personal gain (Ahl & Marlow, 2012; Asthana, 2011; Baker & Welter, 2017; Calas et al., 2009). Human rights activists, on the other hand, are often portrayed as crusaders for collective justice, social good, fairness and equality (Asthana, 2011; Collins et al., 2010). Although connections between the two disciplines are rarely academically explored (Asthana, 2011; Clark Muntean & Ozkazanc-Pan, 2016; Vinod, 2006), I believe that each discipline has points of intersection and can offer one another valuable insights.

The human rights project arguably plays a vital role in attempts to create a protected space where digital entrepreneurial opportunity is not exclusive to the elite, enabling people of varying gender, race and class statuses to acquire entrepreneurial resources, wealth and freedoms (Asthana, 2011). Using a human rights framework to critically examine the digital entrepreneurship phenomenon can in turn inform the human rights project (Dy et al., 2017). Examining popular discourse on digital entrepreneurship using human rights theories and feminist critiques, for example, can offer insight into societal race, class and gender inequalities (Dy et al., 2017; Mirchandani, 1999).

In this essay, I will use human rights, feminist and intersectionality theories to examine digital entrepreneurship. I will begin by outlining popular discourse regarding women digital entrepreneurs, whereby it is often assumed that the increase in women entrepreneurs is evidence of social change, improved gender equality, and increased opportunity for marginalised and disadvantaged populations. I will then examine the women digital entrepreneurship phenomenon through a human rights, feminist and intersectional lens – arguing that the same human rights and equality issues that exist in the ‘offline world’ also appear in a digital environment. I will conclude by briefly discussing the implications this could have on human rights discussions and advocacy.

Digital entrepreneurship and women

Davidson and Vasst (2010, p.2) define digital entrepreneurship as “the pursuit of opportunities based on the use of digital media and other information and communication technologies.” It is often assumed that entrepreneurial opportunity has significantly increased since the widespread uptake of the internet and other digital technologies (Dy et al., 2017). There are regular reports on the growing number of women digital entrepreneurs, portraying a thriving ecosystem of opportunity for women (News Corp Inc, 2016; NSW Government, 2016; Waters, 2017). There is an implicit axiom that anyone who has access to a computer and the internet can succeed in online business, regardless of any ‘offline’ disadvantage or marginalisation due to gender, class or race status (Dy et al., 2017; Kettrey & Laster, 2014).

There is limited research specifically exploring women digital entrepreneurship (Dy et al., 2017). There are however studies that examine the rise of female entrepreneurship more generally. The number of Australian women entrepreneurs has increased by 56 per cent over the past two decades (ABS, 2015). According to the Global Entrepreneur & Development Index (GEDI, 2014), Australia ranks second in the world in terms of favourable conditions for female entrepreneurship. Popular media often imply that such statistics demonstrate a revolutionary change in the industry, with women leading their male counterparts, advancing social change, gender equality, women’s rights and female empowerment (Calas et al., 2009; Lokendra, 2017; Rogers, 2016; Waters, 2017).

A feminist critique of digital entrepreneurship

Despite reports that women entrepreneurship is rising, less enthusing findings are unearthed when examining the data through a feminist lens. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015) reports that women:

  • remain “substantially under-represented as entrepreneurs” with approximately one third of business owners being women;
  • make half the income of male entrepreneurs;
  • are less likely than men (and employed women) to plan their long-term future or pay superannuation;
  • are less likely than men to still be in business when comparing 2006 to 2011 data; and
  • do more unpaid domestic work than men (and employed women), especially if they had dependent children.

Henry et al. (2016, p.218) also argue that despite the “shift towards feminist critiques of entrepreneurship, the literature continues to report studies that merely compare men and women, with little or no attention paid to constructions of gender.” In studies that do examine gender as a social construct, entrepreneurship is found to be a highly gendered phenomenon in terms of media portrayal and societal attitudes, norms and stereotypes (Ahl & Marlow, 2012; Baker et al., 1997; Brush et al., 2004; Clarke Muntean & Ozkazanc-Pan, 2016; Hancock et al., 2014).

Although women entrepreneur numbers may be increasing, the industry is not immune to underlying societal gender issues (Muntean & Ozkazanc-Pan, 2016) as it is “embedded in gender regimes that historically have excluded women” (Blake & Hanson, 2005, p.686). In fact, as argued by Calas et al. (2009, p.557), “the flexibility of self-employment in contrast to corporate employment may create additional burdens for women, who often end up earning less and doing more of their traditional family responsibilities, increasing the sexual division of labour in family.”

When analysing the literature and statistics outlined in this essay, it can be argued that men still ‘hold the authority’ in the entrepreneurship space. As stated by Fleay (2017):

“Gender is a major component of how power, resources, freedoms and status are distributed in societies. Even in positions where women dominate, men tend to hold the top of the authority.”

Digital entrepreneurship and intersectionality

Parallels between the human rights project and digital entrepreneurship become further apparent when examining the industry through intersectional analyses. Similar to what Lodhia (cited in Collins et al., 2010, p.301) shares regarding women’s access to the legal system, it is apparent that women “experience intersectional subordination on the basis of their gender, race, class or immigrant status” in the entrepreneurial space.

When examining the limited data around businesswomen who identify as belonging to a ‘minority group’ in Australia, concerning statistics were revealed (without even breaking down the digital operator subset). For example (ABS, 2015):

  • only 0.2% of businesswomen identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women;
  • almost one third of businesswomen were born overseas, with only 1% not speaking English;
  • less than 1% of businesswomen identified as having a profound or severe disability;
  • about 2% of businesswomen lived in remote or very remote areas; and
  • businesswomen were less likely to live in areas of socioeconomic disadvantage – with a quarter living in areas of least disadvantage and 12% in areas of greatest disadvantage.

When reviewing literature that examines the role that gender, class and race status has on digital entrepreneurship potential, parallels to the ‘offline’ world were found. Those who possessed a high status of employment, income, resources, qualifications, professional experience, and access to networks prior to establishing an online business experienced greater business longevity and growth (Dy et al., 2017). The impact of social status on the digital entrepreneur experience was even further compounded by gender and race (Dy et al., 2017).

Those who experience racism and discrimination ‘offline’, are also likely to experience discrimination in online work contexts. People of Colour, for example, not only reportedly have more limited access to the internet than White people, but are also subjected to more subtle and direct racism in digital environments (Kettrey & Laster, 2014; Dy et al., 2017). Furthermore, racism that is considered taboo or socially unacceptable offline occur more frequently online where anonymity and blurred boundaries exist (Kettrey & Laster, 2014).

In the digital environment, experiences of racial discrimination force Women of Colour to grapple with weighty decisions regarding their online portrayal and brand (Kettrey & Laster, 2014). Dy et al. (2017, p.301) explain that research reveals “whiteness was an inaccessible privilege and political resource” and a process called ‘whitewashing’ was being recommended as a strategy to Women of Colour “to conceal ethnic names, identities and racialized physical appearances in order to appeal to a wider market.” Whereas, race appeared to have little consequence or influence on the business decisions of White respondents (Dy et al., 2017).

Entrepreneurs who choose to speak up about human rights perspectives such as gender equity and feminism also experience online abuse (Moss, 2016). As articulated by Australian Aboriginal feminist Celeste Liddle, this is especially the experience of marginalised women (cited in Moss, 2016, p.205):

“We put ourselves out there, so apparently we deserve what comes back at us. And this is particularly the case when you are a racially marginalised woman. People absolutely feel they have the right to send gendered and racist abuse directly to you because you stuck your head above the parapet.”

It would appear, that similar to the ‘offline world’, White people (especially White men) are granted greater access, freedom, power and privilege in the ‘online world’ than People (especially Women) of Colour (Kettrey & Laster, 2014)

Conclusion

In conclusion, despite popular media implying that the increasing number of women digital entrepreneurs signals advances in human rights and equality for those who are marginalised in society, the same offline factors of disadvantage, stigmas, racism, sexism and discrimination are found in the digital entrepreneur experience (Dy et al., 2017; Mirchandani, 2000). In short, the human rights issues that exist in the digital environment reflect the human rights issues that exist in the offline environment.

The parallels between offline human rights issues and online experiences of injustice require further scholarly research. This is especially important as Moss (2016, p.208) articulates: “The internet is a powerful tool. Like anything powerful, it can be used as a weapon.” How can we better protect the disadvantaged and marginalised in the online space, particularly given the digital world is still an area of emerging technology and law? How can we use digital platforms as a force for good in advancing social change? By investigating the relationship between human rights and digital entrepreneurship we might find methods that enable us to use the online space as a powerful tool for advancing the human rights project.

References

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  • Thank you for sharing this paper Naomi, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It was particularly interesting reading, or seeing some of the beliefs I have being mirrored in the research and papers you cited. And flicking through your resources – that was a blast from the past, good old JSTOR. X