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Inspired by the work of feminist scholars, Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill, I have been exploring the notion of agency as it relates to young women engaging in entrepreneurial activities. Firstly, I should stress that when I discuss ‘entrepreneurship’ and being ‘entrepreneurial’ I am not necessarily talking about start-up businesses, rather, I am interested in the behaviours and attributes associated with pro-active individuals who seek to enhance their opportunities for work and self-improvement. For instance, in Birmingham, I am aware of the work of Justice Williams and Selina Brown who both demonstrate entrepreneurial skills in their own practice and support other young women through various initiatives, talks and projects.

Of course, agency is closely linked to the stereotypical entrepreneurial personality, suggesting a go-get-it individual who creates their own luck. But feminist scholars have also embraced the possibility for social transformation offered by agentic actions, particularly collective agency as a means of opposing dominant and established paradigms. Yet, there are concerns amongst some feminists theorists that there is an over celebration of agency. Gill and Donaghue ask ‘where the agency fetish takes us analytically; and what, if any, kind of transformative politics it may lead to (2014, p.2). Central to their critique, is the idea that agency in popular discourse emphasizes ‘choice’ and ‘empowerment’ as the responsibility of individuals, for their own future. This is very different for collective forms of agency which address social injustices by challenging power relations.

Scholars such as McRobbie (2008) historicise movements in feminism, in order to critique the discourse of empowerment, individualisation and choice found in ‘faux-feminism’ (2008, p.1). A key question for McRobbie is the notion of real empowerment for women rather than the perceived power channelled through consumer goods and entertainment.

“Does capitalism actually give women more or less what they want, if indeed it provides them with such cheap and available narrative pleasures, in the form of popular entertainment, which also now incorporate something like a feminist agenda in their plots and story lines?” (McRobbie, 2008, p.3)

Koffman and Gill’s (2014) analyse similar patterns in the project known as the Girl Effect (led by the corporate company Nike) demonstrating a trend in development policy which promotes the notion of girls as empowered through their individual agency. By transferring western (mostly North American) notions of entrepreneurialism into development policy for the global South, the authors suggest that this leads to an over-simplification of women. Furthermore, it depicts girls from the North as empowered in comparison with their ‘sisters’ from the South as a homogenised oppressed group. For Koffman and Gill, initiatives such as the Girl Effect do little to ‘challenge the realities of global world order marked by profound injustice relating to power, money, resources, gender, ‘race’, class and nation’ (Koffman and Gill, 2014).

So how does this relate to my own research of women and entrepreneurship?

For me, the critique from feminist scholars suggests that women’s experience of entrepreneurial actions needs further interrogation. Scholars such as Gill and McRobbie focus their attention on media content, policies and projects but as I have found in previous research, there is often a gap between, for instance, policy discourse and the lived experience of entrepreneurship. Certainly, my observations are that the language of entrepreneurship (creativity, innovation, personal growth etc.) is enthusiastically celebrated by young women involved in enterprise networks and workshops.

Are issues of social justice addresses explicitly or implicitly in enterprise networks aimed at young women?

What is the nature of the feminist discourse within the network, if it exists at all?

How do young women interrogate ‘the entrepreneur’ ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice’ in workshops and other activities focused on enhancing their entrepreneurial capabilities?

Gill, R. and Donaghue, N. (2013). As if postfeminism had come true. Madhok, S., Philips, A. and Wilson, K. (Ed.), Gender, Agency and Coercion Palgrave Macmillan.

Gill, R. and Koffman, O. (2013). i matter. And so does she: Girl power, (post)feminism and the Girl Effect. Buckingham, D., Braggs, S. and Kehily, M.-.J. (Ed.), Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media London: Palgrave Macmillan.

McRobbie, A. (2008) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change, London: Sage.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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