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Why the rise of female founders may not be that great

Written by Merje Shaw on Friday, 26 October 2018. Posted in Insight, Analysis

Merje Shaw of Path59 argues that while more women are choosing the entrepreneurial route, they still lack the number of options men have

Why the rise of female founders may not be that great

More and more women are starting up their own businesses. Research from Aston University states that the number of women setting up their own companies rose by 45% between 2006 and 2016. I used to think this was an absolutely amazing thing. As someone who is very vocal about equality, I thought more women in business can only be a good thing. But was I right?

Thinking back to when I set up my own company, did I really set it up because I wanted to become an entrepreneur? Being Estonian, the streak has always been there but being honest with myself, I realised that the main reason I set up my own agency was to avoid going back to the rest of “agency-land”. And it turns out I was in no means unusual.

Many of the women in the various female founders’ networks I am part of started their companies when their children were small. Not because of a particular passion for business admin but because not only did they need the money and flexibility, they also wanted to escape the toxic cultures many traditional organisations still harbour.

Unfortunately, it seems as if women still have limited options about what they can do as entrepreneurs. Deciding which kind of company you want to run is no easy task for anyone but when women in general are being told that their options for starting businesses can only really focus on the “homely” aspect, it does not really help.

Just look at Hiscox. When the insurance company published an “inspiring’ list of the kind of businesses female founders launched, it featured amazing suggestions like “child daycare” and “event planning.” The takeaway is that this is what you’re good at when you have ovaries apparently.

Multi-level-marketing companies like Younique are popping up all over the country, leading to many women who can scarcely afford it becoming even poorer. The comments on a thread on Netmums are particularly illuminating, implying that selling make-up, nail wraps and cleaning products is the ultimate business goal as a woman.

There are also thriving initiatives like Digital Mums, who train people to be social media managers and platforms like Notonthehighstreet and etsy, which enable creative folk to sell their handcrafted items online, thus promising the freedom and flexibility that is so sorely needed. But do they deliver? Not always.

So what if you choose to do something entirely different? Well, first you have to wait until the rest of society stops laughing at you for being so preposterous.

According to a recent article in Business News Daily, the key seven challenges women entrepreneurs face are defying social expectations, dealing with limited access to funding, struggling to be taken seriously, owning your accomplishments, building a support network, balancing business and family life as well as coping with a fear of failure.

Whilst I’m sure a number of these are not unique to women, it is much, much harder to get a company off the ground as a female than for men.
Running a business is very different to working for someone else. Putting aside any other issues for the moment, when you work for someone else you have the support of the rest of the company for things like accounting, marketing, sales, HR, etcetera. The operational stuff is covered so you get to do what you are best at without burning yourself out, trying to keep on top of the million other things that you need to learn just to keep going.

A study from Haines Watts, the the accountancy firm, claims that a third of company owners completely lose motivation to continue running their business due to stress at least once a year. This does not sound like the kind of flexibility and culture we were after and emphasises the importance of careful consideration before leaping into running your own business.

So what is the way forward? How about this: let’s make sure that our culture does not alienate people whose life circumstances change? Let’s empower and support women who want to set up companies and make sure they have the support and inspiration to do so.

Let’s make sure women are not the only ones deemed responsible for childcare – after all, fathers are also perfectly capable of looking after children, even if the wider culture does not seem to believe this yet. Let’s get over this incessant need for bums to be on seats from nine to fice, every working day. There are many, many jobs these days that can be done remotely – at least some of the time.

Let’s make sure some company events take place over a lunch time and don’t always include alcohol. In fact, let’s not punish those that need to leave the office after the working day by not including them in project work.

Let’s treat each other with respect but also, let’s make sure we’re not pushing women to start companies of their own because that is the least bad option.

About the Author

Merje Shaw

Merje Shaw

Merje Shaw is the managing director of Path59, a Shoreditch-based consultancy which helps large corporations think like startups and improve their digital presence and customer engagement.

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