What does International Women’s Day mean to female entrepreneurs?

With International Women’s Day (IWD) falling today, Business Leader spoke to several female entrepreneurs about what the day means to them and how to tackle the gender divide in the workplace.

According to the International Women’s Day website, IWD is a time to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality, with this year’s particular theme being #BreakTheBias.

However, Krisi Smith, Co-Founder of eco-friendly tea mixology company Bird & Blend, believes the meaning of the day is more subjective than this.

She comments: “While the fundamental meaning of International Women’s Day is shared by most – to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – it is also largely subjective in its nature and perceived differently by everyone, not least for female entrepreneurs facing the barriers of the corporate world.

“At present, over half of woman-led businesses have no external investment and in terms of the FMCG industry specifically, female representation still accounts for only 21% of managerial positions. I appreciate the pivotal role this annual event plays in helping to open up conversations around the work that still needs to be put into diversifying the corporate world.

“My personal entrepreneurial journey has certainly not been without its challenges. Before the age of 23, I had experienced 37 different job roles, and whilst this provided a valuable learning curve which ultimately shaped my career path into the success that it is today, I can understand the struggles aspiring female entrepreneurs face when trying to launch their own business and navigate their way around the obstacles in the process.”

Sally Tarbit, Director at creative branding and communications agency The Team, believes IWD is a time for reflection.

She comments: “IWD is a time to reflect on how far we have come and how much further there is to go. There is more opportunity than ever to thrive within the workplace, but it hasn’t been easily won. Women have fought to be heard, understood, respected (and in some workplaces this is still very much the case). This has a lasting impact.

“IWD provides us with a moment to be inspired by what women everywhere are striving for and reminding us of how much we are capable of and to highlight our enduring strength. I feel the responsibility more than ever to ensure that I do all I can within my power to remove remaining barriers and make change happen.”

For Nicola Stopps, the Founder of Simply Sustainable, however, the day serves as an important reminder.

She says: “Although it goes without saying that women shouldn’t need just one day to feel empowered, International Women’s Day provides an important reminder for us all. It is not just about celebrating women in business but encouraging progression and confidence in all areas of life – having an equal voice and being listened to.

“I will never forget there are still millions of women around the world who do not have a voice, who are being denied basic human rights, such as education and freedom, because of the simple fact they are women.

“From my experience as a female founder in corporate sustainability, I view this day through the heightened lens of the business ladder in the ESG industry, which places an emphasis on social ethics and encourages female representation – a challenging feat in the corporate world but one which I am so proud to be pushing forward.

“Even in 2022, I still often walk into a boardroom where I am the only woman presenting to an all-male board. Back when I left University, I thought this disparity would be in the past. That said, I am proud to work with young men and women who don’t see gender as a barrier and who support each other’s growth irrespective of whether they are male or female.”

Today, nearly 40% of FTSE 100 boardroom roles are comprised of women, which is up from 12.5% 10 years ago. So, whilst there has been progress in some boardrooms, strong disparities clearly remain.

Tackling the gender divide in the workplace

For many, tackling the gender divide is what International Women’s Day is all about, but with inequalities existing throughout the business world, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the focus should be.

However, Charlotte Duerden, Executive Vice President, ICS Chief Customer Officer at American Express, offers several solutions for tackling the gender divide.

She says: “Without question, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, and as such, it’s more important than ever that organisations hold themselves to account on their approach to gender equality in the workplace. Commitments to making progress are good, but actions always speak louder than words, and results speak louder still.

“Measurements and metrics help businesses understand where they fall short, where more work needs to be done and which initiatives need prioritising to effect change.

“At American Express, we take a multi-faceted approach to building a culture of inclusion and belonging because we know that there is not one single solution to effect meaningful change. Ensuring inclusive recruitment practises, pay equity, and enterprise-wide colleague learning are just a few of the ways we seek to do that.

“Another important initiative is our new way of working that we recently rolled out, Amex Flex, which gives colleagues greater flexibility to determine their workstyle – whether fully virtual, fully in the office, or a hybrid schedule that blends the best of both – and supports our efforts to foster an inclusive workplace that suits colleagues’ varied lifestyles and commitments.

“Of course, responsibility for results doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of those at the top. It’s important to ensure that all leaders are empowered and held accountable for fostering a diverse and equitable environment. Collectively, we can work to create a more inclusive workplace for all.”

Coralie Carré, Design Director at London-based design and brand studio ShopTalk, concurs about the importance of collective responsibility.

She comments: “To tackle the gender divide issues in the workplace, some topics have to be an integral part of your work model in term of values, culture and processes. Gender bias is everyone’s responsibility and as a business, we have to value women’s voices and ensure they are part of the discussion when it comes to key decision making.

“It automatically influences the day-to-day conversation but also the type of opportunity your organisation creates and the benefits that can attract women at any stage of their life. We have to continue to address the ‘one size fits all’ progression paths and understand that woman employee development comes hand to hand with a personal and considerate approach.”

Sally Tarbit, however, ponders whether co-creation is the solution to the problem.

“Isn’t it interesting that despite all the progress and evidence of how a gender-balanced workplace is more effective, a (not insignificant) divide still exists?” continues Sally. “As female voices grow stronger by the day and more of us speak up about our stories of inequality and discrimination, many men are left feeling increasingly disenfranchised and confused, on edge about how to behave and what to say. Rather than, as the intent would be, to close the gap, maybe it’s increasing it.

“Could the answer be to find increasingly more ways to solve this through co-creation? Men and women genuinely working as one in an effective and inclusive way, to solve the challenge together, and create something that works for us all.”