Cluster organisations play a key intermediary role in many regional economies. They help foster collaborative dynamics between the triple helix of business, research/education, and government, typically with the goal of strengthening competitiveness. However, as highlighted in the recent European Cluster Panorama report and by the ongoing work of Basque cluster organisations on sustainable development goals (SDGs), they also increasingly support key societal challenges, for example related to green transition.

In this context of clusters working beyond a narrow approach to economic competitiveness, for International Women’s Day we offer some reflections on the links between clusters and gender. This is an issue that has featured prominently on the agenda of TCI Network over the last decade, and it has recently seen a surge in interest through a series of dedicated discussions organised by the European Cluster Alliance.

On the one hand the issue is about encouraging women to gain more visibility and leadership positions within cluster organisations themselves. While we don’t have reliable statistics on the gender balance across Europe’s 1000+ cluster management positions, it is revealing that the first time a woman was elected European Cluster Manager of the Year was in 2016, eight years after the award was created. Given the unique mix of capabilities required for the difficult art of cluster management – a combination of broad industry knowledge, future-oriented vision and sophisticated people-management, communication and facilitation skills – enabling the potential for women to flourish in these roles represents an important challenge.

There is a much broader agenda too, however, related to the potential that clusters as triple-helix organisations have in enabling a balanced gender-mix in decision-making throughout our economies (companies, research organisations, policy agencies, etc.). Improving gender equality and empowering women in the workplace constitute key societal challenges, as reflected in Sustainable Development Goal number 5. The collaborative dynamics facilitated by cluster organisations can provide a route to work on these issues. Specifically, through these collaborative dynamics gender equality can be looped up as a strategic topic for industrial development, potentially improving the implementation of related measures for increased innovation capacity, new products and services, new business models, etc. among the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that form the bulk of cluster organisation memberships.

Indeed, while awareness of the importance of a gender equality approach may be there within industry, albeit with different levels of importance in different countries, SMEs often encounter difficulties in understanding the economic/business rationale behind it. Where they do, they are often challenged by the question of how to do it in practice. Moreover, these questions intersect with the ‘new work approaches’ and ‘sustainability transitions’ that have accelerated in uptake and importance over recent years. SMEs need support to embrace new work cultures that enable them to attract and keep talented and skilled people by adopting measures related to flexibility at work, work-life balance, flatter hierarchies, etc., while respecting and considering the sustainability imperatives created by the climate and energy crises.

A collaborative approach to addressing these questions can add real value by overcoming barriers related to the capacity, expertise, time and resource constraints often experienced by SMEs. In this context, cluster organisations can play key roles in fulfilling the need for capacity-building at company level around gender equality, and the similar need at policy level for creating the most appropriate framework conditions and incentives for the implementation of gender equality measures by businesses.

So, what, specifically, can cluster organisations do to empower women within their cluster ecosystems? A quick tour around the growing series of initiatives underway across Europe highlights further the key issues and provides some inspiration for taking next steps:

• The French network France Clusters, covering over 300 cluster organisations with more than 60,000 SMEs, recently published the report “Women leading networks – portraits of women at the top of innovative territorial industrial ecosystems”. The report contains a portfolio of interviews of 16 leading women focusing on three aspects: (i) how to increase the presence of women in the scientific and technological worlds; (ii) how to improve industry’s image towards the general public and to women in particular; and (iii) how to develop female entrepreneurship.

• In Sweden, the Värmland, Gävleborg and Dalarna regions, which constitute the ‘sustainable steel region’ based around a traditional, male-oriented steel cluster, have developed specific guidelines for gender equality in leadership. Moreover, the Värmland region has placed gender equality as a transversal issue to be addressed, together with cluster organisations, as part of the development of its Sustainable Smart Specialisation Strategy (S4).

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

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

• In Romania, the Romanian Textile Concept cluster 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 DITECFER (District for Rail Technologies, High Speed, Networks' Safety & Security) is actively involved in the Women20 Group aiming to ensure consideration of gender issues within G20 discussions, to foster gender equality, and to promote women’s empowerment.

• Finally, at the international level, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) recently published the report Mainstreaming Gender in Cluster Development, exploring how gender themes are addressed in approaches to cluster development approach.

These relatively isolated examples from the cluster world together hint at signs of a changing scenario, where ambition, motivation and belief in the purpose of changing mindsets towards gender equality in industrial environments is taking stronger form. Sitting between industry and policy, cluster organisations are well-suited intermediaries for facilitating larger, more progressive steps to enhance gender equality across large swathes of industry. Their mission is typically to strengthen competitiveness by facilitating and maintaining powerful, close, collaborative relationships between companies, research organisations and public authorities. The combination of their broad outreach and the trust-based relationships on which they are built can be leveraged too to support SMEs in transforming industry to increase long-term competitiveness in sustainable, equitable and gender-balanced ways.

Lucia Seel

Lucia Seel

Lucia Seel Lucia has more than 17 years of experience in international innovation policies and cluster development, put at the service for international cooperation, for capacity building activities and for networking. Since 2019 she is member of the European Cluster Expert Group of the European Commission. Lucia was for five years the Community & Content Manager of the European Cluster Collaboration Platform and between 2016-2017 the Community Manager of two Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platforms. As graduate of the Academy of Economic Sciences in Bucharest she worked for Saatchi & Saatchi/Centrade in Romania and Silhouette International in Austria (managing the South-East Asia and South Europe operations), for SMEs, public bodies, speaking six languages

james wilson

James Wilson

James Wilson is Research Director at Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness and teaching faculty at Deusto Business School.

His research interests are in policy-relevant analysis of territorial competitiveness and socio-economic development processes.