Women in the Digital Era: Professor Alina Sorgner

Born in Russia, Dr. Alina Sorgner is Assistant Professor of Applied Data Analytics in the Department of Business Administration at John Cabot University. She received her doctoral degree in Economics from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, Germany. Her research work in the field of entrepreneurship, regional studies, and digitalization has been published in peer-reviewed journals and discussed in newspapers including Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine, and La Nación. 

Professor Alina Sorgner

Professor Alina Sorgner

How did you become interested in mathematical economics and entrepreneurship?
My home country greatly encourages women to study STEM subjects (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and this led me to decide to study mathematical economics. Only later, while in Germany for my doctoral studies, I realized that this was not a “typical” career choice for a young woman, especially in Western Europe. It is interesting to note that the lower participation of women in STEM fields has been identified as one of the key factors of gender economic inequality.

I became interested in entrepreneurship during my doctoral studies at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena, where I was involved in a multidisciplinary project dedicated to the study of social developments in Germany after the breakdown of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Entrepreneurship was regarded as one of the main drivers of development and growth of the economy of post-socialist East Germany. But it was not clear who those people were who took up the challenge of setting up their own business ventures after decades spent in an entrepreneurship-hostile environment, without access to entrepreneurial education and role models of entrepreneurship! Together with my colleagues, I studied this phenomenon taking into account insights from psychology and economics.

You are a co-author of a recently published policy brief “Achieving ’25 by 25:’ Actions to make Women’s Labor Inclusion a G20 Priority.” Why is gender equality in the workplace is so important?
It is crucial to promote equal opportunities for everyone who wants to pursue them. Unfortunately, this is not always the case when it comes to women’s participation in the labor force. Women still face different gender-specific barriers during their careers, which can be formal (e.g., in some countries legal prohibition to enter certain professions) or informal (e.g., gender-specific role models in certain occupations). Studies show that eliminating these formal and informal barriers and economically empowering women will significantly increase the economic welfare of our societies.

I believe that women could be the winners in the digital age. In a study for Women20 that I conducted last year together with my colleagues from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, we show that women in some of the G20 countries have a lower risk of having their jobs replaced by machines compared to men. This is particularly the case for low-qualified women who, in comparison to men, are more often in occupations that require human interaction, social skills, and empathy, such as in care services. These skills are currently bottlenecks to automation. But women will have to complement these abilities with other types of expertise, such as managerial abilities, digital literacy, and entrepreneurial skills in order to flourish in the future job market.

The title of your doctoral dissertation is Self-Employment as a Career Choice. What was the most important thing that you discovered during your research?
The decision to become an entrepreneur does not occur overnight. It requires a lot of resources including relevant human capital, such as previous working experience in small entrepreneurial firms; psychological characteristics like creativity, willingness to take risks, and stress tolerance; cultural support, such as a positive image of entrepreneurs in  society; regional resources, such as the presence of universities that enable the process of knowledge transfer; well-functioning institutions, just to mention some of them. The knowledge of what makes an entrepreneur allows us to design policies that enable more productive entrepreneurship, and thus promote economic welfare.

You have also addressed digitalization for entrepreneurship. What challenges and opportunities does digitalization bring?
Without a doubt, digitalization offers an enormous number of opportunities. Recently, Professors Silvia Pulino, Riccardo Maiolini, and I organized a workshop on challenges and opportunities of digitalization for entrepreneurship. Think about new ways to acquire funding via crowdfunding platforms. This might be a good chance for business founders in areas with a lack of traditional financiers of business ventures to realize their entrepreneurial goals. It has become as easy as never before to target potential consumers. Digital infrastructure lowers the administrative burden put on entrepreneurs. However, there are some serious challenges, too. High-quality digital infrastructures have to be provided in all regions and not only in big cities, in order to avoid potential disadvantages for start-ups. Start-ups need to have access to a digitally literate workforce, which poses a new challenge to our general education system. Last but not least, entrepreneurs and established businesses should be aware of new developments and be willing to make appropriate adjustments. Without exaggerating, one can say that only those who are ready to change will remain. Most continental European countries seem to have relied a bit too much on their past successes.

Individual, political, and economic success demands the readiness to embrace change and deal with the impact of the current wave of technological changes brought about by digitalization. We already see computers and smart machines taking over routine jobs, which rely on tasks that can easily be automated. They are increasingly capable of taking on cognitive and even creative tasks, such as composing music, writing texts, or making paintings and designs. It is important to keep in mind that it is in the nature of technology to save labor. So far, technological innovations have immensely enhanced our living standards and we need to ensure that this continues.

What kind of challenges are involved in an academic career?
An academic career is full of daily challenges. I like to compare it to the process of setting up an entrepreneurial venture. It is risky because the odds of becoming a successful researcher are quite low. Think, for example, of how many archeologists desire to discover the next Pompeii and how many of them are able to realize that dream! Research involves high levels of uncertainty because when you start working on a new project, you only have a limited idea of where it will finally take you and what potential new areas for further research will emerge from your results. Sometimes it is stressful because you have to work under strict deadlines and must face negative outcomes, such as a failed strategy that yielded non-valuable results or a frustrating paper rejection in a journal after many rounds of revise-and-resubmits, a process that can last over a year!

On the other hand, being a professor gives you an opportunity to independently work on projects that you are really interested in, to be creative, and flexible in terms of working times and places. To successfully balance all the pros and cons of an academic career, you need a strong entrepreneurial spirit: to be open to new experiences, to be ready to continuously embrace life-long learning, and to not fear failure, because this is how you can progress.

Are there any projects you are working on you would like to share?
Together with my colleague from the University of Nevada, Reno, we are empirically investigating what happens to individuals in the U.S. labor market who are in occupations that are particularly vulnerable to digitalization. Are they more likely to become unemployed than individuals employed in more “secure” occupations? Have they already anticipated the risk of digitalization of their job and started to apply adjustment strategies, such as a change of occupation? Do they avoid potential job loss by setting up their own business ventures? This project is still a work in progress, and the results of our analysis will provide a more detailed picture of how labor markets react to the current wave of digitalization of labor.

Moreover, together with my colleagues from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, we have just successfully finished our almost 4-year-long project that looks into the past for understanding current economic activities. We were interested in the question of why certain regions are more entrepreneurial than others. This question is difficult to answer because there are many regional factors that influence each other simultaneously. We used a natural experiment setting focusing on the Kaliningrad region that is a Russian exclave today and that used to be part of East Prussia before World War II. The region experienced a number of extremely disruptive shocks including devastations caused by war, a nearly complete replacement of the native German population by Soviets, and 45 years under an anti-entrepreneurial socialist economic regime followed by a shock-type transition to a market economy in the 1990s. Nevertheless, we find a surprisingly high level of persistence of entrepreneurship there, which points toward the importance of history for current economic outcomes. This paper has recently been accepted for publication in Regional Studies.

What is your advice to students wishing to study business, entrepreneurship, or economics at JCU?
Look further than the end of your nose! As a unique cosmopolitan university in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, JCU offers you many opportunities, so do not be afraid to challenge yourself. Entrepreneurship is all about being a “jack-of-all-trades” or being a generalist rather than a specialist in one particular field. Try to identify your least developed skill and put enough effort into enhancing it further. A liberal arts university, such as JCU, with its enormous diversity of cultures and variety of course offerings is a perfect place for taking up such a challenge.