The impact of sexism on business

6 11 2013

We are, I’m sure, all aware of the discrepancies between the number of women in senior positions compared to that of men.

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 restaurants ~ +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 gynaecology. 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 is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective





Where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?

1 11 2010

My Dad has lots of sayings, picked up from books, plays and tv down the years that have passed into family lore. One of these, recited in an iffy west country accent, is “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?” As with most of my Dads sayings, I didn’t know where this came from. I’d never asked as most of his offerings are conjugated from several phrases and don’t have a single derivation, but I was listening to a radio play, The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, who found further fame as Corporal Godfrey in the tv seies Dads Army, when I heard the station master say “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”.

I was delighted to hear this refrain from my childhood. It brought a huge smile to my face. The real significance was the timing. I’d been sitting with a blank piece of paper considering the theme of this months issue of the3rdi magazine, ‘confidence‘, and writing, or failing to write this editorial and then this phrase “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”

Confidence then. Where does it come from?
We all have it at birth, I think. When my son was about 3 years old we were on a family holiday in Portugal. We were having a meal in a beautiful courtyard and, as with most children, he got fidgety when he’d finished his meal and wanted to head off to play. We were still finishing wine and coffee so he had to stay close. Whay he did was to stand in pathway and smile at people. He didn’t stand in their way, he wasn’t pushy, he just smiled. If they didn’t smile back he smiled more. Everyone smiled. Imagine having the confidence to do that now. Street entertainers do this everyday but most of us feel nervous meeting new people and don’t feel we have the confidence to make an impression.

One of the most interesting stories I heard this week was about the neice of a friend. She had been looking for a job and my friend had suggested that she take a look at her LinkedIn contacts and see if there was anyone there that she might like an introduction to. The young girl looked at LinkedIn and decided that there were indeed great contacts to be made so, without third-party introduction, she contacted key individuals, including the CEO of a major Knightsbridge retailer and asked for an internship. He responded personally and has given her many great contacts and introductions to help her along the way. Would you have had the confidence to make that direct contact or would you have waited to be introduced? Her confidence came from not knowing that you’re not supposed to do that. But who says that you’re not supposed to?

At speaking engagements and through the3rdi magazine I tell people all the time that they can contact me personally and directly to get publicity for their business stories. Few do. While this is not all about lack of confidence, it may be that the time isn’t right to look for help or publicity with the business, but it often is that people don’t feel confident enough to introduce themselves.

So we all start out with confidence so where does it go?
There are many suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month of things that may, over time, erode our confidence. The media driven imperative for young girls to attain the perfect figure is one. The celebrity culture that has led young girls to aspire to be a WAG or a reality TV star, and berate themselves if this does not happen for them, is another. Something as simple, and beyond our control, as being the middle child of three is another example given by one of our contributors for lack of early self-esteem. The point is that the list is endless and infinitely variable. Things that may have happened to me to shake my self-belief may have left another unaffected. Business setbacks that may have fatally undermined someone elses ability to prosper have not dampened my desire to succeed. We are not all the same and the reasons for our confidence being built on shaky foundations varies.

So how can we build firmer foundations.
There are hundreds of suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month. Each offers a solution to particular crisis of confidence. I want to offer my own, broader based solution. AS ever, I’ll explain by way of a story. There are several times in my life that I have felt utterly indestructible, times when nothing was a problem, when nothing could shake my confidence. I can remember each time very clearly and the funny thing is that none of these times is closely linked to a moment of particular success. They seem to have arisen independently of the circumstances in my life at that time.

For example one time, very early in my career I was a salesman and I remember driving north up the M1 listening to Black Man Ray by China Crisis as I drove. I felt indestructible. The feeling didn’t follow a particularly successful call, I hadn’t just earned a huge bonus and I wasn’t driving a brand new car – all causes for euphoria if your in sales! The feeling just was.

If the feeling can arise without obvious cause then we are free to create it within ourselves. If you act like a confident person then people will think that you are a confident person.

And a final point about confidence. We all assume that other people have it! When we walk into a crowded room at a networking event everyone who is already there looks relaxed and confident. Think about this. Two minutes ago they were exactly the same as you are now; feeling a little nervous about entering a room full of strangers. It is not confidence that separates you, just two minutes. Once you are in the room and settled you will be the confident one, so take that ‘two minutes later‘ feeling with you into the room.

Think of a time when you were indestructable and take that feeling of how it feels with you wherever you go.