Book Review (Blake 2008)
It Takes a Village: Women’s Entrepreneurship, Resource, Networks and Place
Dr Megan Blake
VDM Verlag Dr Muller, Saarbrucken, Germany. ISBN 978-3639079388. £39
Reviewed by Carol Ekinsmyth. Department of Geography, University of Portsmouth (8 October 2009)
This is the sort of publication that Geography needs more of. In a similar fashion to McDowell’s book Capital Culture (1997), this book reports the findings of a detailed study of a place (in this case, Worcester, Massachusetts) and an economic phenomenon (female entrepreneurship) happening within it. It investigates the gendering of the economic processes, spaces and interactions in a specific metropolitan region and the mechanisms through which this gendering is enacted, reinforced, negotiated and contested. Such detailed, place-specific and contextualised investigations, concentrating on the intersection of the economic and the social are what is so often missing in economic geography writing, concentrated as it usually is, in journal-length articles. This book demonstrates the value of presenting the outcomes of a research project in its totality rather than carved up into 8,000 word slices.
The book sets out to explore the “importance of local context in fostering sustained gender-based segmentation and in shaping access to the resources needed for entrepreneurship” (p. 13). In Chapter two, the author draws upon three separate literatures to inform her theoretical platform and resulting investigation; local economic development and institutional thickness, gendered labour markets and women’s entrepreneurship. These launch the research into a consideration of the role of producer service agents in the local area (Bankers, Lawyers, Accountants, Business Counsellors, local business Chambers of Commerce) – called a Community of Resources (COR) in the book – in providing an infrastructure of support, non-support or opportunity in the locality for female business owners so they can do business (or “get things done” (p. 91)).
The great strength and interest of this work is its detailed, place-based nature. Chapter three details the research methodology which is informed by a Feminist Social Constructivist Approach. Building upon knowledge of the gendered nature of the labour market provided by the previous research of Hanson and Pratt (1988) for example, the author sets out the Worcester Metropolitan region as the geographical context and identifies a sampling frame of women business owners in the region. She also identifies the local COR agents. From these lists, she conducts interviews with various COR agents and female business owners, as well as carrying out a survey by questionnaire and telephone to gain quantitative information from representative sample of female business owners.
Chapter four concentrates on the COR agents and the way that they “contribute to the structure of entrepreneurial environments” (p.47). Through the research methods identified earlier, the author is able to relate a detailed understanding of the frameworks within which the COR agents operate, their decision-making processes, their attitudes towards female entrepreneurs and the services that they choose (or choose not) to provide. As a benefit of concentrating upon one metropolitan area, the author is also able to talk about the local network of agents and their collective role as well as the nature of the ‘institutionally thick’ local business environment. The author relates in detail, her understandings of the role of Banks, Business Counsellors, Accountants, Lawyers, and Chambers of Commerce. This is interesting reading, not least because research suggests that women are less likely than men in their businesses to make use of (or find useful) these agents. Blake considers the gendered social construction of entrepreneurship as a factor and interrogates the conversations of her COR agents from this perspective. Her discussion explores the ways in which, within the “institutionally thick business environment” of Worcester, “gender infuses the institutions” and “marginalizes women both literally and figuratively” (p.70).
In Chapter five, focus turns to the entrepreneurial women in the study and their use of and relationships with the local COR agents. Here, Blake builds upon “social network theory by arguing that an understanding of gender relations and gender stereotypes, and how these are locally and spatially constituted, must be used in an explanation of the usefulness of COR agents for women entrepreneurs” (p.73). As well as focusing on why and how some women entrepreneurs use COR agents, the chapter also discusses the reasons why many women do not benefit from the services available. In particular, attention is drawn to the fact that many women do not know about or benefit from the ancillary services available from these agents such as help with networking, finding customers, other agents or simply mentoring advice. The chapter concludes that women’s businesses are less likely than men’s to benefit from these services and that this makes it more difficult for those businesses to become embedded within the business community. Pervasive gendered modus operandi within the business community, gendered business networks and gendered social constructions of entrepreneurship contribute to this problem.
Chapter six focuses on the entrepreneurial women from a different perspective. Through the experiences of five women included in the study, the chapter investigates the ways in which women do business, and in particular, the ways in which “gendered resources” are capitalized upon to make businesses successful. This is an altogether more positive perspective on women’s entrepreneurial potential within a world that presents structural disadvantage. The chapter focuses upon the gendered strategies that the five women use to run their businesses, such as “mothering performance”; emphasizing the association between womanhood and emotion/caring (“gender association”) and using this as a positioning strategy within the market; the acquisition of skills and contacts through community work, family work or volunteering; and “strategic essentialism” or, the deliberate strategy to work with other women and promote and support other women in business or in businesses aimed at providing a service to women. This is an important aspect of women’s business behaviour and it deserves further empirical investigation. Just how are women self-consciously doing business differently to men?
The book is well written and interesting to read. Each chapter is well structured and achieves its individual task. The overall structure and tone of the book suggests a doctoral thesis converted into a research monograph and perhaps the author could have gone a little further to embellish the narrative and massage it further from the doctoral thesis format. The literature referred to is slightly dated and the publisher might have been more careful in the introductory chapter with font and text sizing. But all of this is cosmetic. The book is an interesting, timely and good piece of economic geography. It provides a detailed context-rich consideration of the gendered processes of entrepreneurship and provides an evaluation of the role of place in the opportunities for, and success of, women’s businesses. It adds to our understandings of the role of the local economy, the local business community and gender in structuring women’s economic opportunities. Additionally, the chapter on COR agents would be very useful reading for any woman thinking about starting a new business and in this way, the book can give something back to the ‘community’ upon which it is based. Most importantly of all, in relating the findings of this important research in a book-length discussion, the author manages to present the phenomenon of women’s entrepreneurship in much of its real-world complexity.
Hanson S and Pratt G (1988) ‘Spatial dimensions of the gender division of labour in a local labor market’, Urban Geography 9(2), 180-202
McDowell L (1997) Capital Culture: Gender at work in the city, Blackwell, Oxford