Professor Linda Scott is a world-renowned expert on women’s economic development, best known for her creation of the concept of the Double X Economy. She is the Emeritus DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Saïd Business school, University of Oxford. Her research is centred around women and entrepreneurship, and the potential that market-based approaches have to facilitate women’s economic empowerment and  development, especially through providing entrepreneurial opportunities to women in developing countries.  In the following interview, Linda is interviewed by Becky Fishman on women’s empowerment, gender disparities in academia and women-led entrepreneurship after COVID-19.

In her book The Double X Economy: The Epic Potential of Women’s Empowerment, published in 2020, Linda argues that women’s systematic exclusion from economic participation has created an alternate economy, a 360 degree prison that shuts women out of economic participation in domains well beyond employment, a situation captured by neither capitalist nor socialist theories. Yet, when the women’s economy is empowered, it is more careful, cooperative, and focused on positive long-term outcomes than the economic order under which the world lives now. Linda has twice been recognised as a Top 25 Global Thinker by Prospect magazine, and her work has been covered by numerous global press outlets, including The Economist, New York Times, BBC, The Guardian and The Financial Times. 

Were there any specific personal experiences or moments that led you to dedicate yourself to your work in women’s economic empowerment? 

Yes, I actually came to work on women’s economic empowerment from another project. I had written a book published in 2004 on the history of the fashion economy in the United States and its relationship to the rise of American women. During the primary scholarship for that book, I felt I had discovered something that was not a popular opinion among academics at the time: that the rise of the modern economy in America had actually enabled the rise of the feminist movement and vice versa. What I found in particular was that there had been networks through which companies and magazines sold their goods and subscriptions, very much like the present day Avon cosmetics company. So I thought networks like that could be introduced into developing economies and have the same effect as they had done in America because there were many similar aspects of both the economy and restrictions on women at that time.  

I wanted to see if it could be done so I wrote to the global CEO of Avon at the time, Andrea Jung, with no introduction whatsoever, saying I wanted to study her operation in Africa, having never been to Africa. It was a shot in the dark. She wrote back to me within an hour and introduced me to the manager of the blue collar workers in the headquarters in Johannesburg. That was my first project. I invited Katherine Dolan, a gender development anthropologist who had just joined the Saïd Business School faculty because I needed a partner with her kind of expertise. I was stunned when she said yes. After that, there was a call for big grants from the DSRC, which I went to. When I explained my idea to the man, he laughed in my face and said, ‘Well, you might as well try it, we are looking for crazy ideas.” and we got the grant. That was what really got me started.  

Moving to the present day, what do you see has been the impact of COVID-19 on women in developing economies?  

There is a LOT to say about how the pandemic has affected women, and no doubt there will be multiple studies in the coming months and years as the data emerges. One thing I’m really concerned about in the developing world economies is what’s happening with garment factory workers, particularly in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, where you have a significant city-based garment industry. Women make up around 82% of the workers, many of them coming from rural areas in a bid to build a better life and escape forced marriage. Garment work conditions are usually stuffy and at close quarters, and while the pandemic is rampant, the factories have closed and these women have been put out of work. As the situation endures, they have had to go back to the villages where they came from because they can no longer support themselves in the city. While factory conditions can be bad, it’s fair to say that their situation in the village would nearly always be worse. They’re returning into a situation where they will be seen as an economic burden, and so they will either be ostracised and stigmatised or they’ll be married off pretty quickly. It will be a whole generation of them and they’ll be gone forever, because once married they won’t be able to be pulled back into the economy when it reopens. It’s a significant human rights issue, and it applies to literally millions of young women right now.  

On the developed world side, does the Zoom ‘revolution’ and its potential effect of shifting some of the workforce to work from home permanently pose a problem for women, or could it be a positive? 

Whether the shift to working from home is positive will depend a lot on how it is rolled out. For the last ten years or so, especially in Britain, remote working has been put forward as the solution to the gender pay gap. The idea here is that women can take care of their children and work at the same time. But what we have actually seen is that the work life balance becomes much worse when this happens. Because the presumption made by advocates is that taking care of children is just not all that much work, and so it can be done alongside …. I can tell you personally that it is not true. Taking care of kids is very hard: I was a working single mom of two kids. When I looked after my granddaughter during the first lockdown because her school was closed, I can tell you that there’s almost nothing you can do passively while also working to maintain the attention of a child besides sitting them in front of the TV which nobody wants you to do.  

Given that, it is clear that working from home is not a solution to childcare issues and so a shift towards it could be a very bad thing. Data is telling us that women are taking on more of this burden than the men within their households at the moment, and so women’s work is going to suffer more than men’s. The only positive I’ve heard is that during this time, men have also been present in the homes to see and understand first hand how hard it is and so know first hand that this is not a tenable solution. Hopefully, when they return to workplace, they can then be advocates for a different solution. In that case, it could be possible to have remote work and then have childcare moved out of the city. Childcare closer to the home would be a big improvement. The ideal outcome from Covid is for countries to realise that childcare is economic infrastructure in the same way an airport or a train line is. You need to have it for modern kinds of economies to operate. 

On addressing gender disparities in academia and entrepreneurship 

I find it frustrating how we are still trying to ‘fix’ women to adapt to a male-centric world, rather than adjust our systems and perspectives to include and make space for women. This is the case in academia and in the corporate world, and also when it comes to entrepreneurship and venture capital. In academic research, women actually dominate in the Life Sciences at the bench level, but not at leadership level. In fact the lack of women in leadership everywhere can largely be attributed to toxic environments, misogyny and bad behaviours related to bigotry and male dominance, but it’s taking time for people within organisations to see and recognise this, to take their blinkers off and notice and question these absences, and to decide to address it with positive action.  

There are many things that drive people to become entrepreneurs, but I think for women it’s often the case that they do it to gain (or regain) their independence, to get out of the formal workplace, escape sex discrimination and to self actualise. Instead of facing the exhausting assault course of an inflexible workplace with mostly male leaders, they can create their own thing that works for them, and this holds massive appeal, particularly to working women who are also mothers and supporters of others. 

On women and risk 

Are women more risk-averse? I think they’re more realistic, and much more concerned with stability and long-term growth, rather than short term gain. So women-led ventures may have different aims and perspectives from male-led ventures – and when it comes to getting funded, they may be looking for a less high-stakes kind of investment. And for VCs who invest in them, the win is that they get a more balanced portfolio. Some VCs are starting to realise this, but many still follow the quick return, all-or-nothing, 10x cash-out model that is standard in venture investment. This is a lose-lose situation for women and investors, and I think it’s ripe for change. 

On calling out misogyny, and recognising male support 

I fully recognise that it’s not easy to call out misogyny for what it is – many women fear repercussions and negative impacts on their career progression if they do so. But I’m older and I’ve got myself established now, so I can do this for the young women, and it seems to me that other ‘elders’ can and should do similar. It’s actually a pretty low percentage of guys who have a real problem with gender equality – but unfortunately they are a very vocal minority, and they are very attached to their point of view, so the likelihood that you’re going to win that group over is pretty small. But we must remember that we have the majority already; the majority of guys recognise and respect the fact that gender equality is part of an enlightened world view. So we need to stop treating that small, toxic minority of guys like they have a legitimate viewpoint, and we have to give our male supporters some clear ways to show their support of women and equality. 

On the rise of right-wing authoritarianism – and hope for the future 

One thing that I do worry about a lot, and that is a genuine threat to the progress of women’s empowerment, is the rise of right wing authoritarianism. Throughout history, women have won substantial rights, only to have had them revoked and rolled back as governments and regimes rise and fall. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of fiction, but the systems and experiences it describes are a real thing that has happened many times in history. And what’s happening in Poland right now for example is terrifying. Poland is officially classified by the World Bank as a high income country. It is essentially a secular society, even though 98% of Poles identify as Catholic. And  it is fundamentally a society where most people believe in gender equality and reproductive freedom all of this. And it was also a successful democracy, but over the past few years – really very fast – this has been turned over by a government that seems intent on undermining the democratic process, and who are strongly supported in this by the Catholic Church, which holds a huge amount of economic power and influence in Poland, even though it is not an economic or government institution. It’s incredible the amount of damage this can do, and we’re seeing it playing out in our times, right now. People need to pay more attention to what is happening there, and take action to support those who are risking their lives and livelihoods to counter this very real threat to women’s rights globally. 

But there are many reasons for us to have hope – and in fact I wouldn’t have written my book if I didn’t have hope for the future. And one of the reasons for this is that we now have data and evidence that shows us the picture that we didn’t have before. And this means that we know what we need to do to change the situation for the better, and this is something that we just didn’t have 50 years ago. So now we know what to do, we know what is right, we know what’s good for us, and we have the will to make the changes – so the onus is now on all of us to do the work and make it happen. 

With thanks to Professor Linda Scott, and to student interns Amelia Wood, Loni Sebagh and Ksenia Nowicka for participating in this interview for Enterprising Oxford and IDEA Women. Please sign up to our mailing list and LinkedIn group to stay up to date with IDEA’s work to increase diversity in enterprising activities.

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