Eva Pascoe argues that, for the sake ofthe economy, we need more women on the net
Earlier this month, an elite group of women from both sides of the Atlantic gathered at No 11 to discuss the role of women in the new economy. This was gesture politics at its best. In the course of 48 hours, minister after minister — Patricia Hewitt, Baroness Jay, Tessa Jowell and finally Gordon Brown — stood before a rapt audience and sang a bold new song about women. “Women are the driving force of the new economy,” Brown said.
The purpose of the two-day jamboree in Downing Street – the result of transatlantic collaboration between the Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Washington DC — was to import some of the can-do American mentality to Britain. In the US, the connections between business and feminism have deep roots. Female entrepreneurship developed as a kind of DIY economy, a response to outdated attitudes in the large corporations. Female-owned businesses employ 27.5 million people and generate $3.6 trillion in sales annually, up 436 per cent since 1987. Micro-enterprises are no longer marginal sectors of the economy. They are rapidly coming to define it.
In Britain, too, there has been rapid change, with women accounting for 30 per cent of all new business start-ups. But the fastest-growing sector of the economy is now e-commerce, and that is where the question marks begin.
The Internet is no longer associated exclusively with anoraks or geeks. Eva Pascoe, founder of Cyberia cafes, and Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, are among those who are feminising the Internet and creating powerful role-models for the future.
But this feminisation of the net is partial. When you look closer, men are still firmly in the driving-seat as entrepreneurs and investors. A recent industry assessment of the hottest Internet start-ups, dubbed the e25, showed that the e-economy is overwhelming male. All but two of the founders of the e25 are male.
Why is this? One explanation is that we still have some way to go in shifting attitudes to women as leaders and as entrepreneurs. All too often, venture capital is loaned by men in grey suits out for a fast buck; they are still doubtful about women’s leadership or business skills. They often see women as consumers, targets for retail therapy online, rather than long-term business partners.
For their part, women still have to overcome their technophobia. They are less likely to be users of the Internet at work and at home. Yet as Patricia Hewitt, Britain’s first minister for e-commerce, pointed out to the Downing Street conference, women ought to embrace the new technology because it can foster family-friendly working and greater control over their time.
But there is another point. In the strange new world of the e-economy, technophobia may actually be an asset, rather than a weakness. A woman may well prove to be a better Internet entrepreneur than a man because she will understand the need to make the whole thing more user-friendly and more enticing to those who are not besotted by the technology. She will think of the technology as simply a tool that can make users’ lives easier and far more enjoyable.
Investors are beginning to grasp the potential of the female market. In recent months, a host of women’s sites — such as handbag.com and charlottestreet.com –have been developed by investors and entrepreneurs keen to cash in on the first e-Christmas. Both these sites have huge investment behind them, spending millions on their advertising launches alone. But the pitch is still primarily to the woman as consumer.
Pat Dade, a director of Synergy Brand Values Ltd, a consultancy firm that studies people’s values and tracks their consumer behaviour, says that women are getting online at a rapid rate. However, unlike men, they are not so much looking for places to download new software or to do price comparisons. Women, Dade says, use sites for personal information — to swap information about their lives, to trade tips, to build communities of support and advice. They want chatrooms where they can meet people of like mind, share anecdotes, foster new friendships, perhaps buy a service or two.
So entrepreneurs need to identify new demand and nurture new forms of community, new tribes. Women entrepreneurs are those who are well placed to do this. The new economy needs to be embedded in a more engaged and feminised culture. E-commerce cannot easily conjure up communities out of thin air, but online communities can facilitate long-term business growth.
The author is co-founder of eTribe, an Internet start-up dedicated to nurturing online communities. She is also on the advisory council of the think-tank Demos firstname.lastname@example.org
New Statesman 14
22 November 1999
Author: Helen Wilkinson
ISSN: 1364-7431; Volume 128; Issue 4463