A Behind the Scenes Look at an Award-Winning Paper on Entrepreneurship

What goes into making an exceptional academic article? In this interview, the editor-in-chief and an associate editor of the journal Human Relations ask that of Helene Ahl and Susan Marlow, authors of the journal’s official 2021 article of the year. In “Exploring the false promise of entrepreneurship through a postfeminist critique of the enterprise policy discourse in Sweden and the UK,” Ahl and Marlow explore how postfeminist assumptions have shaped — and perhaps harmed – policy initiatives in the two northern European countries. Editor-in-chief Mark Learmonth of Durham University and associate editor Yasin Rofcanin of the University of Bath go behind the scenes with Ahl and Marlow to discuss the intertwining of the personal and the intellectual behind both their careers and their writing.

Ahl is a professor in the school of School of Education and Communication at Jönköping University and  a researcher at Encell, the National Centre for Lifelong Learning. Marlow is a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Nottingham. She holds the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion, is editor of the International Small Business Journal and a fellow of the Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

This conversation took place on September 28, 2021.

Mark Learmouth: Congratulations on winning Human Relations Paper of the Year 2021! To start off, can I ask you about the evolution of the paper? It is obvious that both of you have been working in the field of entrepreneurship and women’s entrepreneurship for a long time. Is this paper the fruition of all these ideas? Where did the specific idea come from?

Helene Ahl: We have both done critical research of women’s entrepreneurship for a long time and we have both written about policy before. We were approached about writing a chapter for a book on post-feminism and organization and we saw this as a great opportunity to develop our thoughts in relation to post feminism; this developed into the paper.

Susan Marlow: It’s important to add, for other researchers who might be looking at developing their writing, sometimes if you can develop ideas in the form of a book chapter, short commentary or a working paper it can be really useful to test out the ideas in that context. There is an awful lot of pressure on early career researchers to have things published, and published very quickly, but as an editor myself I know how tricky this can be. So consequently, the idea of developing ideas through this process was really valuable for us. As we’ve both been working as critical researchers it was an opportunity to put some ideas together to actually push back against some of what we saw as taken for granted assumptions about the overall benefits of entrepreneurship in contemporary society and putting that through a postfeminist lens; to actually question many of the things we take for granted both in popular society but also as researchers.

Mark: Where did the focus on entrepreneurship come from in the first place?

Susan: Personally speaking, the more engagement I’ve had looking at entrepreneurship the less inclined I am to do it! I undertook an undergrad and postgrad degree as a single parent and I needed a job; there happened to be a research fellowship going at Warwick University that focused on small firms as they were emerging at that particular time. I was prepared to research anything; one of the first things I looked at was the role of funeral directors at small firms. Having a first degree in sociology where the emphasis was on feminist critique, I was pretty appalled at the state of this emerging area of research which offered no reflection whatsoever on issues of diversity or gender – it was just about white middle-aged men. That is what first provoked my interest; both out of necessity and to try to shape debate further.

Helene: My story is somewhat similar; I started as a doctoral student in 1996 and I knew I wanted to do something on gender as that was my big interest. I was hired as a PhD student at Jönköping International Business School which at the time, and still now, placed an emphasis on entrepreneurship. I thought, OK, I will do my dissertation on gender and entrepreneurship. I started to read up on the literature and I found it so strange, there was so much of a male norm and so many assumptions. My thesis became a critical research analysis of the research texts, and this theme has continued.

Helene Ahl, left, and Susan Marlow

Mark: Would you say the intertwining of the personal with the intellectual has been central to the success of your publication through the years? It seems to me that is very important to so many of the papers we publish in Human Relations; these papers are not merely a reflection of simple intellectual curiosity but they represent what the authors really care about. Would you have reflections on that?

Susan: Yes I think it is one of the things that I talk to PhD students about – if they don’t really care about the topic, if they don’t feel passionately about it, they shouldn’t do it because it will probably frame their career and be a springboard for what they do in the future. To take my own case, it was not just researching funeral directors in small firms because they would pay me £500 to do it; I did feel really strongly about the way that gender issues and particularly the way women were dismissed, it made me angry and that form of anger gave me a sense of purpose to my writing. It is not only about achieving a publication, but also about having something to say and something you think matters and may be important to future generations too. I can see as a writer myself how my views have changed over the years. I was originally sucked into the idea that entrepreneurship is great, and we need to encourage more women to do it, if only women were a bit more like men and tried a bit harder and gave things a go – this paper has really challenged those ideas and made us think a little bit more reflexively. It made me think, hang on a minute, this isn’t a problem with women, it’s a problem with people’s way of thinking. It then becomes more of an ontological critique.

Helene: I would add that, yes, you have to be passionate, but in addition you must also have a critical view of that passion otherwise you may find yourself propagating the idea without reflection.

Mark: The analysis you have done, it clearly must have taken a long time to build up a data set. I wondered how you did that, with all these different policy documents and managing everything.

Helene: In the case of Sweden, government reports and policy documents are available on the web. Once you start digging into the web, one thing usually leads to another.

Susan: In the case of the UK there was a big push in the mid-2000s, specifically 2004-2010, fueled by a policy focus on expanding women’s self-employment. There were dedicated organizations tasked with developing policy and initially I was involved in that and with those strands of policy thought. Whilst on some level it is a question of going through documents and analyzing them, the discourse in the UK that underpins the policy documents has not changed hardly at all over the years, it still hinges on the idea that there is some sort of ‘deficiency’ in women, and they have some sort of responsibility to address this themselves. To give a brief example of this, in one of the first policy documents in the UK, I think 2003, it opens up with the Minister for Business who makes the statement, “If women in the UK started businesses at the same rate as women in the US, then they would create so much employment and wealth that it would transform the UK economy.” That is a nonsensical statement for lots of reasons, most of which you can read about in the paper, but mostly as a comparison it just doesn’t work. If you look at a 2016 policy document compiled by a private sector consultancy organization, it has exactly the same sentiment in it.

Helene: In Sweden things have changed because we had a change of government seven years ago. It was the liberal conservative government that pushed the agenda for women’s entrepreneurship, when the government change came in 2014 lots of these schemes were closed and the emphasis placed more on regular social democratic job and employment policy.  

Susan: In the UK women’s entrepreneurship has almost disappeared off the agenda.

Mark: Who ideally would you like to read your paper and, having read it, what would you like them to do differently?

Susan: The obvious answer is ideally I would like emerging researchers coming into our field at the moment to read it. Because exploring issues of gender, women and entrepreneurship is now described as a ‘mature field’ because it has been expanding over many years; the extant literature is sophisticated and embedded in multi-disciplinary approaches. The one that matters a little bit more to me is I would like researchers who read this paper to reflect upon their own attitudes; as an editor and someone who works in this field, I still see a lot of people pursuing this notion that we need to get more women to do it, how do we do this etc. Encouraging people to be more critical and reflective about the assumptions we’re making within this area of research – those are the people I want to read this back and think, “hmmm, perhaps this challenges my way of thinking.” It would be good if people read the paper who normally wouldn’t engage with the field of gender and entrepreneurship because it has become somewhat of a specialist field, and it would be good for those researchers to understand how this issue reaches out to fields that are beyond ‘just’ gender and women.

Helene: I was thinking that the concept of post feminism and is sometimes used uncritically. I would be happy if the paper could contribute to a more critical appreciation of post-feminism.  

Susan: The other basis in our paper is how post feminism is entwined with neoliberalism. I think within the whole field of entrepreneurship we haven’t grasped sufficiently the way that entrepreneurship is only made possible through neoliberalism and the greater political implications of this whole discipline. We’ve tended to focus on things such as opportunity, recognition, how to create a new venture, how to make money etc. and we have a slightly weaker debate about some of the ontological assumptions which underpin the role of entrepreneurship in contemporary society and this idea of shifting back responsibility to the agent which erodes the idea of collective community responsibility. The idea of our paper is people being more reflexive and more critical about the things we do.

Mark: I thoroughly agree. Entrepreneurship for me is one of a number of terms these days that has become part of neoliberal ‘common sense,’ terms that aren’t seen as ideological anymore.

Yasin Rofcanin: To add as a reader and someone who comes from an organizational and occupational psychology background, what really struck me about the paper is the notion of women becoming role models for others and women taking other women as role models when they try to succeed in a world dominated by men. I thought it was interesting that the finding in your paper was this notion of ‘role models’ does not always work, as it does nothing to break down the structural barriers or problems that are in place. With this in mind, I was wondering what your message would be about ‘women as role models’ in entrepreneurship?

Susan: The obvious answer is for readers to question and look beyond the popular media image of women role models in entrepreneurship. Helene is undertaking some work on this at the moment, about media representation. The media tends to introduce this ‘ideal type’ of female representation, which is embodied in female entrepreneurship because of this notion of agency. It’s the idea that if you just do it for yourself and you cultivate a certain image and persona – become the ‘entrepreneur of the self’ – you can become the entrepreneur of the commons. It’s a tricky one. The way women entrepreneurs are represented is supposed to be celebratory but actually this form of celebration often embeds women in further disadvantage because it excludes certain areas of policy. A study into the impact of COVID-19 on females who are self employed has shown that the pandemic has been devastating for many, because of the way women are positioned and the way government has dealt with female entrepreneurs, excluding them from payment schemes etc.

Helene: I am currently doing an analysis of media discourse in women’s magazines and we’re finding that this whole ‘role model’ idea inscribes women within the neoliberal agenda and in a gendered world they are presented as being successful women despite having a family and they are presented as successful in business because of their experience as mothers. Often, they are presented as very feminine, successful women within a man’s world. The media representation neglects to mention the patriarchal structures these women encounter.

Susan: We published a paper recently on ‘Entrepreneur Barbie;’ Barbie is now often represented as an entrepreneur, which is seen as a success, but Barbie never seems to get away from this idealized image that ‘women entrepreneurs can take control of their own lives.’ This argument is contradictory to reality; if women want to go into entrepreneurship and meet these media representations then their control is taken away because women must conform to this ‘ideal type’ of female entrepreneur. Helene and I have looked at Sweden and the UK, and largely the global south has been ignored in the discourse but there are some lovely papers on women in India, where successful women entrepreneurs are defined by the fact that they still managed to look after their kids and husbands in the morning before work. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where there is a highly educated female population, entrepreneurship is seen as a ‘gift’ because it is an outlet for women to use their education, but the way of working doesn’t actually challenge any of the underpinning patriarchal or discriminatory structures in the country. It is a contemporary issue for the 21st century but it puts women right back into this notion of boxes and lack of control.

Helene: If I look at the experience in Sweden, the celebration of women’s entrepreneurship has been in parallel with the cuts to, and privatisation of, the welfare system. The message has been, “OK, we will privatise healthcare and education, but unemployed women can become entrepreneurs and start their own business.” That puts collective responsibility on the shoulders of individual women; they are not given the correct support to replace the work of the welfare system and more often than not the leaders of multinational companies who took over public contracts as part of this privatisation drive, were men.

Susan: We have a long history of doing that in the UK. We produce precarity and repackage it as opportunity. I am working on a paper at the moment and some of the questions we have are around why the government would encourage women to take up a role in the labor market that takes away things such as paid flexible leave, or pre-natal benefits, sick pay, holiday pay etc.? Public sector jobs that provided these benefits to women are now gone, and women are being sold this idea that it is a real opportunity to become self-employed. Women then have to make a decision about how their time is invested and the possible return on investment; previously this was the state’s responsibility, and it now becomes the individuals’ responsibility.

Helene: In Sweden we had an ‘Ambassador’ program; 2000 female entrepreneurs selected to be ambassadors to go out to schools and talk about entrepreneurship and business. These women were unpaid, they were expected to do this in their free time. As part of another research project, I interviewed some of those who had volunteered to take part and they were very proud of this work. They had no critical thought of the program at all.

Mark: This is perhaps part of the collective fantasy of the ‘entrepreneur.’ It is an attractive term but if we used a different term perhaps that would be a step forward. In itself, perhaps using terms such as ‘entrepreneurship’ is problematic because the term immediately throws up positive imagery and thoughts.

Susan: I agree with this, in the UK we have often preferred the term ‘self-employed’ but there are semantics around the difference use of terms. Entrepreneurship is the expression used in the United States and is the dominant term in US papers and journals. Entrepreneurship is a linguistic signifier of a particular type of person/attitude/sense of responsibility. I think in the future there may be more critical reflections on entrepreneurship; I expect there are those working currently on a more critical Marxist analysis of neoliberalism and the pitfalls of entrepreneurship.

Helene: In Sweden we have two words. One is “företagare” which means ‘someone who does something.’ And the other is ‘Entrepreneur.’ The first word was the one used for those who start businesses but lately entrepreneur has been entering the discourse more and more, bringing with it certain neoliberal ideological connotations.

Susan: It may be semantics, but I do try to use ‘Entrepreneurial Actor’ which suggests a person who has taken a degree of risk with limited resources. These are the little things which get easily dismissed but they are important. To bring this back to the point of writing articles, it can be difficult to get involved with these debates because you have a limited wordcount and it can be tricky to decide how much of a paper to give over to this topic. In our paper we chose to put in a footnote of what we meant by entrepreneur. There are about the same number of self-employed women today as there were in the 1990s; this despite all the policy initiatives and popular media. There have been spikes during recessionary periods (2010) so it will be interesting to see what happens after the pandemic. What we do know is that while many women are drawn to self-employment they leave relatively quickly as it is very hard work for very little return; the level of churn is high.

Helene: We have data from Sweden covering all women business owners. We’ve looked at their disposable incomes and the median female business owner has a lower disposable income compared to the median female employee.

Susan: It is the same in the UK. I did a paper with colleagues in another journal which looked at the failure of women’s businesses and why they exited the market, and part of it was because of income. ONS data shows that full time self-employed women earn 25 percent less on a median basis than equivalent women in employment. This figure is even higher for those who are part time self-employed compared to part time employment.

Cover of the Human Relations journal

Yasin: Thank you so much for taking the time to have this discussion with us. It has been a fascinating conversation. Congratulations again on winning the Human Relations Paper of the Year 2021. One last question, about the peer review process at Human Relations, could you summarize your experience of this?

Helene: The reviews we had on the paper were great. They helped us sharpen the arguments.

Susan: Jackie Ford was the associate editor, and she did a great job; I would like to acknowledge her contribution to the paper. My advice for an early career researcher would be that some reviews will inevitably make your heart sink, and everyone goes through this. You have to try to take the positives out of these reviews. One thing I would add is that the review process has become far more directive these days (perhaps due to the pressure from Institutions to publish) rather than collaborative. There is a notion that you have to do everything the reviewer says but I would encourage people to push back and try to undertake a more collaborative review conversation.

Helene: Thank you for making us Paper of the Year 2021, we’re both really pleased. 

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Mark Learmouth and Yasin Rofcanin

Mark Learmouth (pictured) is a professor of organization studies at Durham University and editor-in-chief of the journal Human Relations. He spent the first 17 years of his career in management posts within the British National Health Service. Yasin Rofcanin is a professor of management, strategy and organization at the Centre for Future of Work at the University of Bath. He is an associate editor for Human Relations.

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