The role of women in industrial clusters and how clusters can support gender equality in their industries

An insight view into the status-quo, the challenges, the initiatives developed in various European countries to empower women as an key factor for sustainable competitiveness and innovation.

“Industrial clusters should be considered as regional ecosystems of related industries and competences featuring a broad array of inter-industry interdependencies. Clusters are defined as groups of firms, related economic actors, and institutions that are located in geographical proximity and have reached a sufficient scale to develop specialised expertise, services, resources and skills”*.

Collaboration is in the “DNA” of a cluster made possible by facilitation of interactions between the actors through dedicated cluster management organisations supporting the networking and learning and acting as innovation support providers through services stimulating innovation activities, especially in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. In a broad sense, they can be seen as ecosystem managers, as industrial cooperation does not come easily and requires trust-based relationships grown in a neutral environment. Whether we talk about digital transition – the focus area of JFD, green transition, resilience of the enterprises, the upskilling and reskilling of their workforce – clusters can help. But beyond these directions, they can help position the sight and focus on the role women can – and should – play in these industrial ecosystems, including towards increasing the competitiveness of the companies. 

Since 2011 I keep a close eye on gender as a strategic topic in clusters in order to explore unused resources for innovation, new products and services, new business models and still unexploited market potential within the cluster innovation ecosystem.

The issue is not only about encouraging women to gain more visibility (for the first time a woman was elected in 2016 the European Cluster Manager of the Year – eight years after the award was created) – and reach positions enabling them to unfold their potential. It is much more about enabling a balanced gender-mix at all levels (company, cluster, policy levels). 

So, what can clusters do to empower women in their industrial ecosystems? The answer is: a lot. Unfortunately, not enough to say “mission accomplished”, yet, but there are growing initiatives in Europe deploying efforts to empower women in various industry sectors. Mentioning a few examples of activities implemented from North to South and East to West are helpful to see the ambition, motivation and strong belief in the purpose of changing the mindsets in an industrial environment. 

Let’s start in France a quick panorama across Europe:

  • The French network France Clusters, embedding more than 300 clusters with more than 60.000 SMEs, published in 2020 the report “Women leading networks – portraits of women at the top of innovative territorial industrial ecosystems” with a portfolio of interviews of 16 leading women focusing on three aspects: how to increase the women’s presence in the scientifical and technical worlds, how to improve the industry’s image towards the general public and to women in particular and how to develop women entrepreneurship. 

  • In Sweden, the region of Skåne supports with dedicated programmes the gender equality integration in the clusters’ business while the regions Värmland/Gävleborg/Dalarna representing the “sustainable steel region” – with a traditional male-oriented steel industry – developed guidelines for gender equality in leadership.

  • In Denmark, the maritime and logistics innovation cluster MARLOG, deployed a lot of creativity in the development of an innovative programme aiming to get “More Women at Sea”, with excellent results.

  • In Germany, the “Women4Energy Network” initiative led by Steinbeis 2i GmbH applied research & innovation methods to highlight the importance of top-down and bottom-up measures for the rise and visibility of future female leaders, aiming to induce change through numbers and networks.

  • In Spain, the AMUEBLA furniture manufacturers cluster in the Murcia region, participates and contributes to the “Women Making Waves” EU funded project enhancing female leadership skills. 

  • In Romania, the cluster “Romanian Textile Concept” contributes to the “Women in power” EU-funded project, focusing on leadership and empowerment of women in traditional industrial sectors. 

  • In Italy, the cluster manager of the DITECFER District for Rail Technologies, High Speed, Networks’ Safety & Security is actively involved in the Women20 Group aiming to ensure considerations on gender issues within the G20 discussions, foster gender equality and promote women’s empowerment.

  • At international level, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) published the report “Mainstreaming Gender in Cluster Development” looking on how gender themes are addressed in the cluster development approach.

  • Last but not least, several clusters and cluster and gender experts in Europe will closely collaborate in future in the recently approved ERASMUS+ project PENELOPE to develop a cluster-based approach to gender mainstreaming strategies in Europeans SMEs by focusing on the critical factors that need to be integrated for the development of a gender equality blueprint that allows for the advancement of gender-inclusive industries in the EU.

The European Clusters Alliance, the pan-European network of cluster associations, provides the discussion space for the clusters in Europe to learn from each other’s experience, while the TCI Network offers the opportunity for the exchange at international level. The European Cluster Collaboration Platform, an initiative of the European Commission to support the cluster connectivity in Europe offers the possibility to monitor the gender participation in this community. 

Beyond Europe, the Canadian Innovation Superclusters Initiative funded by the Canadian government provides an important source of inspiration on how to address the gender equality and empowerment through clusters, while in Australia the region of Brisbane and the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre (FIAL) focus on women entrepreneurship and skilling for leadership.

As the cluster motor is fueled by cooperation, entrepreneurship, research, internationalisation with the goal to generate saleable innovation and increase competitiveness, why shouldn‘t gender be part of it? How long will it take to see the gender topics addressed in a cluster strategy? Hopefully not for too long. We all know how important networks are. Particularly for women.

*https://clustercollaboration.eu/cluster-definitions

By Lucia Seel, International cluster expert

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