Women entrepreneurs and networking during COVID-19
22nd March 2021
Author: Colette Henry, Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Research (GWEP) Network & International Journal of Gender & Entrepreneurship
Networks are important for business start-up and growth
Networking is an effective entrepreneurial activity, relied upon by entrepreneurs to start and grow their business. Networks can provide access to: business advice; new customers; new suppliers; export opportunities; financial capital, and IP licensing opportunities. Networks can also provide entrepreneurs with emotional support that can help maintain their drive. Policy-makers recognise that networks are an important part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and that effective networking can enhance business performance, particularly with regard to innovation and exporting (Foss, 2017; Hanson & Blake, 2009; Henry et al., 2020).
The impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurial networks
COVID-19 has, for the most part, resulted in the cancellation of traditional face-to-face, large-scale networking events, with an immediate transfer to virtual/digital platforms. This could be particularly detrimental to women entrepreneurs and the networks they have established. This is because, as reported by the EU Women in Digital Scoreboard (EC, 2019), there is a gender gap in digital skills (11%, and higher in those over 55), meaning that women may be less technologically prepared for on-line networking activity. Also, as reported by the OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), women already carry out up to ten times more care work than men, and hence their on-line availability may be more restricted now due to increased caring responsibilities as a result of school/creche closures and home-schooling requirements (OECD, 2020, p.2; NBER, 2020; UN, 2020).
Those operating in the services, informal economy or undeclared work sectors are particularly at risk of losing their networks because these sectors were hardest hit by COVID-19 (Williams & Kayaoglu, 2020). Some of these business had to close completely during the crisis; some did not qualify for government furlough schemes, and as a result, may not be in a position to re-open.
Entrepreneur networking organisations have become a particularly important support for women entrepreneurs – both established and aspiring – in all sectors. Networking is also critical in academia, particularly where women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines often struggle to gain recognition and support to exploit the entrepreneurial and commercial potential of their research. A recent EU project (TRIGGER ) at Birkbeck, University of London, explored the contemporary challenges facing women in science and academia (among which networking was deemed to be critical), and offered effective strategies to improve gender equality in this context (Lawton Smith et al., 2020). The resulting research found that, in order to be effective, networking needs to be viewed as part of the wider ecosystem of supports; the time and timing of networking events are important considerations for both the organisers and women participants; network organisers need to be mindful of the danger of all-female events (Hampton et al., 2011); include more women as headline speakers in expert panels that are often part of networking events. Findings also suggested that future research needs to focus on longitudinal studies that aim to assess the effectiveness of networking from the participants’ perspective (Henry et al., 2020).
However, due to COVID-19, many networking organisations have been struggling to stay afloat, having been forced to cancel events or freeze membership fees. In most cases, networking organisations have had to pivot to 100% on-line events. While for some women, on-line networking may be more accessible, for others, on-line networking events/seminars might not be valued as much a face-to-face events. Currently, networking organisations are not receiving government support.
Possible policy responses to be considered
In light of the above, policy makers should consider the following:
For women entrepreneurs’ networking organisations:
- Provide ICT technical assistance to help them convert networking activities to effective and engaging on-line platforms.
- Provide funding to bridge the gap in loss of revenues as a result of cancelled networking events.
- Offer marketing consultancy to communicate the importance of maintaining networking efforts.
- Monitor the effectiveness of virtual networking activity by actively seeking feedback from platform providers and end users, and facilitating improvements where required.
For women entrepreneurs:
- Communicate the importance of maintaining and developing their business networks during the Covid pandemic.
- Develop COVID-19 and post COVID-19 networking protocols to ensure gender balance in network panels/speakers.
- Optimise the time and timing of events.
- Manage potential trust issues related to establishing business contacts ‘virtually.’
- Establish clear strategic linkages between networking and other key entrepreneurial eco-system components, such as mentoring, training, finance and market opportunities.
Author: Colette Henry
Contact: [email protected]
EU – European Commission. (2019). Women in Digital Scoreboard 2019 – Country Reports, 11th June, available from: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/women-digital-scoreboard-2019-country-reports, last accessed 18th March 2021.
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Williams, C. & Kayaoglu, A. (2020). COVID-19 and Undeclared Work: Impacts and policy responses in Europe. The Services Industry Journal. Published on line 28th April, available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/02642069.2020.1757073, last accessed 1st June 2020.
Acknowledgement: Some of the key points raised here were discussed by the author at an OECD seminar in June 2020. The author is grateful to Jonathan Potter at the OECD for his feedback on the original draft prepared for that seminar.
 TRIGGER project; no. 611034, funded under the Seventh Framework Programme, Specific programme ‘Capacity’, Work programme ‘Science in Society’, FP7-SCIENCE-IN-SOCIE TY-2013-1, led by Professor Helen Lawton Smith at Birkbeck, University of London.