Rather than considering simply the numbers, it is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.
If we look at a comparison, by sector, of women-led SMEs versus all SME:
community, social and personal activities ~ +6%
health and social work ~ +9%
hotel and restuarants ~ +4%
production ~ -6%
construction ~ -9%
In summary women more often head up businesses within what is often termed the ‘soft sector’ rather than the ‘heavy’ industrial and manufacturing sectors.
Why might this be?
Well it’s simple, as any venture capitalist will tell you, entrepreneurs should always do business in areas they know. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many women start and run companies in ‘traditional’ female categories like food, shopping and things that are family-related, especially if those markets are profitable. The larger concern is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic were founded by men.
And it isn’t just in enterprise that women work in traditional female categories. We have many more women doctors now than we ever did, but women are over-represented in areas such as family practices and gynecology. The same is true of female lawyers, who choose family law and non-profit work.
So while there are more women in traditionally male-dominated roles and professions than there have ever been, small “ghettos” within those professions, where women are allowed to work, are emerging. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this clustering but it is how we view that cluster. I chose the word ‘ghetto’ deliberately to reflect the value that is placed on these clusters. It is clear that as a society we tend to put less value upon areas such as nursing and hairdressing, areas where women cluster.
So it is about what we value and, though it’s subtle, what we value is attached to the masculine or ‘gender neutral’ (and often saying ‘gender neutral’ is the same as saying ‘largely masculine’). As a result we tend to undervalue the business areas that women choose. This is reinforced in the disparaging way we speak of ‘lifestyle businesses’ with particular regard to women-led enterprises operating in areas seen as traditionally female.
So you can see that we can’t really think about the types of business women start in isolation. We need to consider the bigger picture and include the types of jobs women take in the workplace and the value society places on that work.
The lack of value we place on work is important as it often translates into poorer pay and conditions for women in the workplace. I was at a conference a year back that was called in order to address the issue of getting more women into board and senior management positions within the businesses that constitute the co-operative movement. The debate raged about whether quotas needed to be introduced to get more women onto group, regional and national boards. My colleague stood up to make this very simple point: ‘the movement could do more to improve the position of women not by giving more to few women nearing the top of the organisation but by paying a living wage to the thousands of women who work at the lower and middle-levels.’ I agree and would add that they should do more to value the work that the cleaners and shelf-stackers and check-out staff do.
If we are serious about changing the work women choose, we need to go right back to the start and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation, as these role models will influence the choices young women make when entering the workforce and, therefore, when starting their own businesses too.
If we are serious about changing the landscape of business we need also to look at the value we place upon the type of work women do. And here I think that we might just be on the threshold of change. In the policy document entitled, “Supporting economic growth through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones” Eric Pickles, on behalf of the coalition government opens with the statement, “Our economy is currently too dependent on a narrow range of industry sectors.” So, a suggestion at least that there should be less of an emphasis placed on traditional industries. If we read “male-led” instead of “traditional” then maybe signs of change, or an indication of an awareness that change is needed.
Here are just a few opportunities.
With an ageing population we are going to need far more carers, a female-dominated industry. There is a really possibility that society may actually come to value care and carers in this growing market situation. It is up to women to start and lead the large-scale businesses that run and manage the care system rather than leaving it to men to head up these companies. And in healthcare there are many high growth opportunities. The biggest currently seems to be digital healthcare, which describes the development of systems and technologies that have the potential to save lives by equipping doctors with quicker and more accurate information about patients. There is no reason why this should not be headed by the people who actually come into contact with the patients, predominantly women carers.
With retail giants failing or otherwise leaving the high street there is a huge opportunity for small specialist retailers. My contention is that the high street is changing, not dying, and there is a real desire to halt the growth of commuter towns and build character back into the places in which we live and shop. This drive is personified by Mary Portas who is working, and has been given public money, to energise 12 towns. It’s not much, but it’s a sign of things to come.
While computer games have long been seen as a male-only enclave, this is changing. Games used to be sold on the quality of the graphics. This is no longer the case. The graphics are uniformly pretty good and so this aspect of the game is a given. What sells the games now is the game play, storytelling, and more than that the psychology of the characters. This opens up this whole arena to women. And I think no one would argue with the assertion that social media plays to women’s strengths in communication and collaboration.
Women have provided the backbone to volunteering in this country for many, many years. Activities like befriending, meals on wheels, staffing charity shops and supporting local PTAs. In the current economic climate, with more and more closures of public services, it is often women who take responsibility for keeping open services such as post offices and libraries. We are starting to see the emergence of social enterprise as a way of providing community services and we are seeing a new band of social entrepreneurs and these are more likely to be women.
The challenge, as before is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic have been founded by men. The opportunity is that the changing landscape, moving businesses towards care and social enterprise, will favour the female demographic. The challenge is to make sure that women are in a place where they are able to capitalise on these opportunities.
We should, then, be keen to ensure that women think big enough with their start-ups as, while men are competing to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or eBay, women-led start-ups still tend to focus on small niches. As we’ve seen the niches may be growing of their own accord, but we do need more women who are willing to build large businesses.
It may be that the rise of the social entrepreneur will aid this process as the emphasis for social enterprise is on creating surplus rather than profit and of creating value for all the stakeholders and not simply for the shareholders. Women may in the past have been discouraged at the prospect of creating billion-dollar businesses by the spectre of working in, and with, the old-style testosterone-fuelled board. By replacing that competitive environment with one more conducive to collaboration, as is often the case with social enterprise, we should see more women creating large, sustainable and profitable enterprises.
Karen Birch is editor of the3rdimagazine.