I am all for enterprise and success in business whether it is a man or woman in charge. For the last five years many businesses have struggled to grow, even survive. Any entrepreneur who builds a business during this recession, to me, has heroic qualities irrespective of gender.
However, I will raise my flag to any woman-led business knowing that its success will probably have come at a price. Ordinarily success is achievable if entrepreneurs commit more than 100% to their business, but to create success in the middle of a recession requires extraordinary commitment and sacrifice, and especially if you are a woman.
We talk about ‘work-life balance’ and the desire to get it just right. The tug between work, family, and relationships affects men and women differently. No-one can be available all the time and traditionally men haven’t tried to be. This is partly hard-wiring in men’s brains and partly thousands of years of conditioning which women have only spent the last century trying to reverse.
The good news is that business support for a woman running her company is much the same for a man, but the bad news is that pressures are very different. There is very little official help available which recognizes the pressure women are under. This may be partly due to the range of responsibilities we take on which are not necessarily the same for every woman so it is difficult to identify where support is most needed.
At a meeting of women leaders I attended recently a number of issues were identified:
- Children and the desire to be a good parent and an effective businesswoman is the biggest pressure. A colleague from many years ago, a director of a well-known food manufacturer, was determined not to be substituted in a meeting with the Board, turned up with five day old baby at the breast to take her place around the table. Her co-directors were shocked
- Women entrepreneurs are perceived to have a shelf life, a ticking bomb of hormones waiting to kick start a family
- Relationships with colleagues, family and friends are always going to be a greater pressure and emphasis for women as our brains are more developed in this area
- Residual attitudes (across both sexes) to women at the top of their game, such as ‘queen bee’, cold, steely, ruthless, dragon-lady. Men are simply seen as successful.
There are many women-only networks which help to counter some of these pressures by sharing coping strategies and offering advice and support. But I think we are still a long way off changing attitudes towards women in business and holding onto negative stereotypes of successful women specifically. Success by women should be embraced and lauded as much as it is for men.
I do think as individuals we need to make changes to our own views of entrepreneurship and sacrifice. We don’t have to do it all only to be charged with feelings of immense guilt. Delegation of responsibilities within the business and our personal life creates space to breathe and re-energise. If there are two parents in a child’s life there is already a shared responsibility, so shouldn’t that include taking time off work to nurse a sick child or relative/ sports day/ concerts / parents evenings, etc?
As for government intervention, it doesn’t see beyond the childcare issues. To enable all female entrepreneurs to succeed there needs to be support in all aspects of their lives, including more investment in better care for all dependants. In the longer term we should all be supportive of entrepreneurs who run successful businesses, without stereotyping them.
Margot Grantham is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.