Change the system not the women

16 07 2013

“For a woman to get half as much credit as a man she has to work twice as hard and be twice as smart. Fortunately this isn’t difficult.”

We’ll have all heard that saying, and probably most women had a smug smile or snigger of recognition when they first heard it.

Many successful women have even been heard to use it to imply that they must be much better than their male colleagues to be in a similar position of power and influence.

But put the quotation another way, that if a woman and a man are equally smart and work equally hard then the man will enjoy four times the success, it isn’t quite so funny.

And here is a problem with the hero entrepreneur, or the “shero”, a term that is gaining currency amongst this type of entrepreneur; it encourages us to focus on what women need to do and how they need to be to succeed in the current system when what we should be doing is focussing on structural inequalities. Focussing on women who have achieved great things fortifies the illusion that all women could succeed if only they tried harder, stayed later in the office, were more confident.

Last year I was on a discussion panel which followed a presentation of the book, “Beyond The Boys Club” by it’s author. I had agreed to sit on the panel as the meeting was to discuss the vexed question of increasing the numbers of women on corporate boards. I have to confess that I only read the book on the day of the event or I probably would have declined the invitation. That said, the panel debate was excellent but the book itself promulgates the very worst aspects of the current system. It perports to teaching women how to beat the men at their own game when we should be changing the game. The rules of this particular game, enforced by the boys club, led to the near total collapse of the western economy. We need new rules not just a different gender to play the same game.  Maybe we even need a different game altogether.

There is a parallel here with the very worthwhile aim of keeping women safe. It focusses on how to dress, where it is safe to go and places to avoid, times to be on the streets and times to be tucked up in bed.I would hope that the vast majority of people would want women to be unharmed but my point is that we need to focus on creating safe societies, making structural changes,  not just keeping women safe by restricting freedoms. Far better to teach men not to rape than to teach women how to avoid being raped.

We all want to believe that we are living in a fair world, one in which everyone is able to succeed solely on their own merits but we are not.

When women like Sheryl Sandberg stand up and talk about how women can achieve the kind of success she has had she enjoyed she is not addressing all women. She is talking to the very few women who can chose where, and for how long, they work each day. Most women, indeed most men, do not have this luxury. Her experience, as shared in talks and now in her book, may help with tricks and tips to succeed and may smooth the path of a very, very small number of women who wish to follow in her footsteps. But hers is a particular, priveledged journey that very few women, or men, are able to take.

By encouraging the, “if she can do it then I can do it” attitude we fail to address the deficiencies of the system.  Accepting that because one person can do something must somehow demonstrate that the system is OK is wrong.

We are not living in a fair world. Helping a few more women, or men, to struggle to the top of mountain is not the answer. Doing something to change the landscape is.

Why women entrepreneurs (Part II) – Lessons from Zoology

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Now we come to the second reason, and here I have to confess that I have a considerable advantage over most business students.

My first degree is in Zoology and as part of that degree course I studied Human Evolution, so please bear with me if my argument becomes overly complex and too scientific. The early record of human evolution threw up a number of incredible metrics, some of which are as true today as they were when early hominids first started to move from the East African Rift Valley.  The most important statistic for our discussion today is the staggering revelation that 51% of the population are women. Yes, women are not a minority group …. BUT

  • women make up just 22.5% of women MP’s. The picture is slightly better in Scotland but the number of women MSP’s is the second lowest in four Holyrood elections at just 34%

Staggering though this is, it is the high point as,

  • women make up just 15% of High Court Judges – which may go some way to explaining why prisons are filling up with single mums whose main crime is a failure to cope. But that is a discussion for another day.
  • according to the Davies Report women make up only 12.5% of the members of the corporate
    boards of FTSE 100 companies. Admittedly this  does represent an improvement from 2004 when the figure was just 9.4%. At this rate of growth it will take 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies. Under Lord Davies’ recommendations, FTSE-listed boards are required to have 25% of positions held by women by 2015. We’ll look at progress in this regard a little later.
  • just 10% of bank CEO’s are women. In 2011 the EU issued draft proposals to force banks to take on more women directors. The proposal calls for women to make up one-third of bank directors.  At the time the proposal was launched, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group had female representation on the boards lower than 10%, at HSBC it was 25%,  at Barclays 15% and Standard Chartered 13%.  Ana Patricia Botín of Santander is the only female chief executive of a major bank.
  • only 5% of national newspaper editors are women – and remember what the Icelandic experience tells us about the importance of a positive media profile.
  • and 0% of the monetary committee are female. I’m not a fan of (the late) Margaret Thatcher, to put it mildly, as I was still in Liverpool when she was determined to destroy economic development in the city, but she did suggest that balancing the national budget was little different to what every woman did week in and week out in the home. I quote, “”Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.” I can’t help feeling that under the current economic circumstances having more women on the committee wouldn’t be a bad idea.

And the imbalance continues when we consider entrepreneurial activity. Women are only half as likely to be involved in entrepreneurial activity as men. The figures are woefully low in the UK for both sexes actually, with the result that only 5% of women are involved in entrepreneurial activity.

And it is reflected in the statistics showing who has control of the small businesses in the UK as over half of SME’s are run entirely by men. For those that don’t recognise the acronym, SME’s are small or medium-sized enterprises and defined as those businesses having less than 250 employees. For completeness the figures collected in 2010 show that

  • 52% of SME’s are entirely male led
  • 9% of SME’s are majority led by men
  • 25% of SME’s are joint led
  • 14%of SME’s are majority female led

Returning to the issue of women on boards for a moment, after an initial upsurge in female board appointments in the wake of the Davis Report, progress is slowing.  This is not just my opinion but that of Business Secretary Vince Cable responding to the latest report from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders.

The latest figures show that the percentage of female appointments to FTSE 100 boards in the last six months is 26%. This is a considerable slow down from the previous six month period measured by Cranfield, where female appointments to the FTSE 100 were 44% . To dramatically emphasise just where we are now;

  • Right now there are only 18 women in executive positions in the FTSE 100, compared to 292 men.

So the second reason is the simple one of equity. It seems only fair that a gender that represents over 50% of the population should be proportionally represented in offices of state, in the board rooms of our major corporations and in SME’s.

As a post-script to this part of the discussion and an affirmation of Part I, Penny de Valk, Chief Executive of Cedar, said in response to the slow-down;  “The lack of female role models in senior positions feeds a vicious cycle, where the summit looks like a risky and alien place for women and the personal cost of success may seem too high.”

So we need more women entrepreneurs;

  1. To provide role models for the next generation of young women and
  2. Simply as a matter of fairness

The 3rd reason, which we’ll discuss next, is the simplest and most compelling, because it makes economic sense.

Why women entrepreneurs (Part III) – It’s the economy, stupid

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

If the first two reasons weren’t compelling enough, then the third surely will be as economic argument often wins over claims for fairness of outcome or opportunity. As expressed so eloquently in Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992, It’s “the economy, stupid”.

I’ve said that most businesses in the UK are small, but exactly what do I mean by that?

Well, 71% of businesses in the UK have 0 employees.
That is to say an individual has work for themselves and employs no-one else.

A further 24% of businesses in the UK employ between 1-10 people

So, a staggering 95% of businesses in the UK employ less than 10 people
Perhaps Napoleon would still recognise the UK as “A nation of shopkeepers”. We are certainly still a nation built around small businesses.

We’ve seen how existing businesses are managed largely by men, but what about new starts? What would be the effect of encouraging more women to start businesses?

As early ago as 2007, in a report into the state of women’s enterprise in the UK by R Harding, it was stated that,

  • “any significant increase in (overall) business formation will only come from encouraging more women into business”

If we look at the US for inspiration, as we are often encouraged to do, then women there are twice as likely to be active entrepreneurially than women here in the UK. What would it mean to the UK economy if we could achieve that level of entrepreneurial activity here?

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking at the Advancing Enterprise Conference in 2005, said

  • “If the UK could achieve the same levels of female entrepreneurship as the US, Britain would gain three quarters of a million more businesses”

750,000 more businesses!

Well, maybe that might be too ambitious; thinking that women in the UK could be as entrepreneurial as their US counterparts, though interestingly, the figures for male entrepreneurship are about the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so how about increasing activity in the UK?

What would it mean if women in the UK were as active entreprenerially as men in the UK?
Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Former Minister for Women and Equality said that,

  • “In the UK, if women started businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 extra start-ups each year”

Slightly less impressive but still impressive numbers.

And it is not just about starting businesses simply for the sake of starting a business, to make the government statistics look better, but it is about sustainability. As Chief Executive of the Small Business Service, Martin Wyn Griffith put it,

  • “A pound invested in developing women’s enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male owned enterprise”

Why might that be?

We know from experience with the likes of the Grameen Bank, who put small, often very small, amounts of money into women led enterprises in developing countries, that the women use the money to grow their businesses and also to support their families and communities. I know from my own experience in Fair Trade co-operatives that Edinburgh based tea and coffee importer, Fair Exchange, buys only from women-led co-operatives as they also have shown that when you buy from women the money stays in the community rather than disappearing with the men to the nearest big town with a bar. Now I’m not suggesting that money invested in male-led businesses all ends up supporting cocktail bars in the city, though I would quite like to know what corporations do with all that money as it doesn’t appear much of it goes to paying tax, but we do need to take some of the learning from overseas developments into our own struggling communities.

And the 150,000 women-led businesses that Jacqui Smith felt could be created, there is likely to be a much more immediate effect on the economy than if those start-ups were from men as around one in five women come into self-employment from unemployment compared with around one in fifteen for men. Put simply, men are more likely to leave a job that they already have to start up on their own – net economic gain 0 jobs. Women entering the workforce from unemployment – net economic gain 1 job.

We have seen that 71% of businesses employ no-one but there is still the tendency to dismiss women in self-employment as running “life-style” businesses. A man with a white van and a ladder is entrepreneurial in setting himself up with a window cleaning businesses. A woman with a white van and a hairdryer is either working for pin money or biding her time waiting for mister right to come along – presumably bringing his ladder with him!

I’m in two minds as to whether we should try to reclaim the term “lifestyle business” or whether it is already so badly debased that it is beyond reclaiming. Fundamentally all businesses are lifestyle businesses, it’s just that Bill Gates has a different lifestyle to you and I. And why should a plumber be more respected than a hairdresser?

There is nothing wrong with running a business that provides work for just one woman in order that she can support herself and her family. And when it comes to hairdressers, mine employs more people than I do, and hires out space in the salon to beauticians and other therapists, creating and supporting jobs in the town. Yet it is me here talking about entrepreneurship! Something wrong somewhere?

And it is worth considering the types of businesses women start, and why, and I’ll do that next.

Why Women Entrepreneurs (Part IV) – Doing what we’ve always done

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

It is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.

If we look at a comparison, by sector, of women-led SME’s versus all SME’s,

  • 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’ was 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 echoes my earlier point about 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 businesses 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 chose, we need to go right back to the start of this presentation and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation as these role models that 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 businesses 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” as we have showed is a reasonable replacement earlier, 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 PTA’s. 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.