Prof. Jo Barraket is a leading researcher in social enterprise and social innovation in Australia. Her work spans questions of public policy, organisational hybridity, and social change.
She is known for her work in mapping the social enterprise field in Australia and has been an international advisor to the OECD on the role of the social economy in social innovation. Jo's research interests include social enterprise, public policy, social innovation, third sector, and social economy.
"My main area of research is social enterprise and the social economy, which includes businesses in the not-for-profit sector and hybrid businesses for a social purpose. My first degree was in English literature. I was doing a thesis on the post-structural subversion of Dr Seuss - it was called ‘Green Eggs and Spam’. I had a great time, but I was also a young environmental activist. When I came to the end of my undergraduate years I decided I really needed to ensure that my values were well-aligned with my scholarship, so I shifted from English literature to sociology.
As an individual researcher, my proudest moments have been the policy or practice take-up of my work. As a research leader, my proudest moments now are in seeing members of my team move to the next stage of their development. These days I feel like I get no time to do my own research. But the reality is that I've built a team of seventeen people and there is actually a lot of work being done that involves my vision.
The most challenging time I've had, on a personal level, was a period of acute ill-health. I was diagnosed with MS in 2010, and I became extremely unwell very quickly and very unexpectedly. That really knocked me for six in terms of my own identity and my work plans. In managing that, I've always had the privilege of working in environments where I'm highly supported by my managers and my colleagues.
A further challenge I’ve experienced is around the gendered nature of academia. It's not to do with conscious behavior, but there is unconscious bias and normalising of experience that isn’t actually universal experience. I'm not entirely sure how I manage that: some days I do it well and other days I probably do it very poorly. Some days I'm quite skilled and diplomatic! But the main thing for me is naming it, not sitting on it; bringing it into the open where appropriate, so that it is attended to by everyone and becomes a situation of co-responsibility.
Impact and Legacy
I'm passionate about doing social science differently: visualisation of data, and creating user-centered data sets that can be sliced and diced in different ways. It's critically important in my view that research actually gets to practice; that point of connection is important in terms of impact.
We do a lot of work developing organisational tools that are research-informed: things like social and financial reporting tools for social enterprises, and developing online data dashboards for organisations to measure their social impacts. I'm highly entrepreneurial and enthusiastic about the market, I like doing work that really matters in the world, and I don't personally have any trouble gaining industry engagement and research funding.
But universities exist to produce public value, And I think finding that fine line is quite challenging sometimes: actually developing material that lives in the creative commons that can be freely used in our areas of work, because our primary area of work is producing social impact, and often that means working with markets that don't have the capacity to pay. Usability is where it's at.
Looking forward twenty years, my primary legacy would not be about individual research projects, but about field-building. The area of work that I'm in is not so much a field of research, but an interdisciplinary activity. It is a community of scholarship, and I'm one of its pioneers. If I’ve done well, my achievement in twenty years time would be more people doing this.
Advice to Younger Women
If I could go back to my eighteen year old self, I'd give her a pat on the back, because I haven't done too badly! The main thing I'd say is trust your gut. And the other one, work is hard, but always find that nice balance between things that are fun and things that are hard.
I find this a marvellous career path, because you can reinvent yourself multiple times. The increasing casualisation of the academic workforce is a bit of a challenge, but I think the current emphasis on engagement and impact is also opening up great opportunities for diverse and hybrid roles. For researchers starting out today, being open to opportunities while also having some clarity around your own research program is important.
Mentoring and Support
I've had mentors who are serious heavy-hitters in their areas of research, but what's been really helpful were their reflections on themselves as human beings – all their imperfections and messiness, and the mistakes and compromises. How has that played into their career development and academic process?
The other thing my mentors have done is be unfailingly supportive of me. It's important to be challenged, but it's important to have some senior colleagues in your life who really have your back. It's empowering to know that clever, successful people think I'm okay and on the right track.
All of my mentors have been men and they're all awesome. But I've probably gravitated to people for whom championing women is just natural. I've obviously had a great many productive relationships with senior women as well, to whom I'm infinitely grateful for their community and collegiality."