What does IWD mean to female entrepreneurs?

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Ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD), Business Leader spoke to some leading entrepreneurs regarding the importance of today – as well as some interesting research into the challenges in today’s business community.

People now picture a woman when they consider the ‘archetypal entrepreneur’, according to a novel experiment into perceptions of business. But this positive attitude is yet to be reflected in reality.

In an implicit bias study – commissioned by digital bank Starling – 2,000 participants were shown an ‘identity parade’ of all ages and genders and asked to respond in less than three seconds which images could be entrepreneurs.

The image that most people (70%) agreed looked entrepreneurial was that of a young (30-something) woman, compared to a little over half of respondents (57%) indicating the same for a middle-aged man. Younger people were also more likely to see women as entrepreneurial.

This contrasts with reality where the average business owner is a 51-year-old man, and where only 27% of businesses are owned by women.

However, out-dated perceptions of older people in business were still evident in the study, with images of the over 50s being selected far less than average. And while all respondents judged older faces of both genders to be less ‘business-like’, profiles of older men were more likely to be considered entrepreneurial.

Anne Boden, Chief Executive Officer at Starling Bank said: “It’s encouraging to see that assumptions about business ownership are changing and that many rightly view women as entrepreneurial as men. At Starling, we’ve witnessed this first-hand with thousands of women of all ages launching businesses. But the reality now needs to catch up with perceptions, and the study also reminds us that some outdated views of women in business still very much exist.”

The research also showed the degree to which entrepreneurial ambition is strong (and growing) among women, with more than 1.5 million women having started their own business in the last 12 months (6% of women) and nearly three times this number (17%) harbouring ambitions to start a business very soon.

Self-believe in business skills among women is equal to that of men, too (31% and 32% respectively). And young women (18-34) are more likely to see themselves as running their own business than young men (48% vs 43%).

This progression is reflected in Starling account holder statistics, with the proportion of limited company and sole trader accounts held by women having grown steadily since 2018, from 18% to 32% of business accounts and 25% to 33% of sole trader accounts.

Industry reaction

Judy Homer, who owns and runs Lincolnshire gardening company Burgh Tree and Garden Services, said: “When we first started, we had lots of mixed reactions from customers with me being a woman – either they love it or they don’t! Usually older customers were shocked, often men. I’ve found they want to stop me digging or doing anything too physical. But most customers nowadays respect my work and especially the plant knowledge I can impart.”

Burcin Ressamoglu, CEO at Sodexo Engage, comments on International Women’s Day 2021: “Over the last year women’s equality has taken a hit. Women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s and more females have been furloughed. Not to mention stats that show women are bearing more of burden when it comes to managing family and home life. Businesses need to step up and continue to fight for gender equality, even during the pandemic.

“We have to acknowledge the importance of creating inclusive cultures where women can belong in our society. International Women’s Day provides a valuable opportunity to recommunicate an organisation’s commitment to gender balance and to take action on that commitment. This can mean creating support networks for working parents, building more transparency around pay, or examining your parental leave policies.

“At Sodexo we have seen first-hand the benefit of gender balance and the correlation to our business performance and have been committed to putting gender balance at the heart of how we do business for more than 50 years. This includes our latest initiative, the SheWorks program, which gives us a chance to create a better tomorrow by advancing gender balance, fostering inclusion and opening up new opportunities for women. It also allows us to connect with potential talent while helping women see new potential for their future career paths.”

Sarah Wood, Head of Women’s Business Network at NTT DATA UK, said: “Building a diverse and inclusive workforce is a growing priority across UK industries, and the tech industry is no exception where, particular attention is being directed towards tackling low female representation.

“Equality allows businesses to give women the opportunity to break into an industry so dominated by men. Leaders must prioritise motivating and supporting existing female employees, as well as recruit female talent into the organisation in future.

“Moreover, equality does not simply benefit women, but all those groups who are underrepresented across industries. It is about changing the fundamental structures of a business to improve representation and inclusion for all. In other words, it presents a sure-fire way to address imbalances that have long been engrained in the tech industry at large.”

How to address it?

“Diversity and inclusion need to be top considerations for all businesses, with initiatives designed specifically to promote the growth of female employees, as well as those from ethnic backgrounds, within their organisations.

“Recently, we have seen more and more businesses embracing these kinds of diversity initiatives. Driving female leadership, in particular, has become a top priority across the industry in the last 15 to 16 months.

“Going forwards, it is vital that the right support is available to those who need it. When employers take each employee’s individual needs into account, not only will they get more out of their people, but they will also cultivate a more inclusive and supportive working environment. In turn, this will lead to greater creativity, collaboration and innovation amongst teams – key ingredients for a successful business.”

Peakon’s Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Sheree Atcheson said: “This year, International Women’s Day is more important than ever. The pandemic has undermined years of progress on gender issues and thrown us into a recession that could last for years to come. Covid-19 may be indiscriminate, but its impact has been disproportionately felt by women (and specifically women of colour), who are more likely to have been laid off, furloughed or managing additional caring responsibilities.

“But we need to avoid grouping all women together. Women are not monolith; they exist in all spaces which are complex intersections of race, sexuality, class and countless other factors. Some women will have been impacted far worse by the pandemic than others. When we know that women are more likely to be made redundant, and we know that Black and Asian workers are too, what then does that mean for Black or Asian women?

“As a society, we need to be far more aware of intersectionality and its impacts on women’s lived experiences and careers. Frequently organisations introduce initiatives to improve gender equality. But unless these are specific in their aims, they’re likely to provide most support to non-disabled, heterosexual, financially-privileged White women – those who need it least.

“If business leaders really want to improve gender equality in the workplace, they need to consider the specific challenges faced by different groups of women. Failure to do so will see them miss the opportunity for truly progressive discussion, and leave the problems faced by numerous women ignored and unaddressed.”

Samantha Smith, founder and CEO of finnCap Group, said: “COVID-19 risks many women leaving the workforce, leading to fewer women role models in leadership positions. That’s because pandemic-induced home working has seen lots of women effectively working a double shift, combining full time jobs with home schooling and caregiving.

“So as well as calling on UK businesses to increase the number of female executives, we also choose to challenge businesses to ensure they make work more compatible with family life and care responsibilities.

“Moreover, with the Budget often falling close to International Women’s Day, we call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to every year report to Parliament on the extent to which measures announced in each Budget are helping to tackle gender bias and inequality in business. That way, we can ensure that Government financial and economic policy is truly helping to drive the cultural change we need to see


As part of our support for International Women’s Day, Business Leader spoke to two females who are leading their respective businesses to discuss the importance of women in the workplace.

What do women bring as senior leaders to the boardroom?

Karen Plum, director of Research & Development, Advanced Workplace Associates

“I heard somewhere that adding one woman to a meeting increases the social intelligence in the room significantly. It’s easy to leap to generalisations, but the skills of empathy, listening to hear (not to respond) and building trusting relationships are all vital in today’s boardroom. Diversity in the boardroom is more likely to be mirrored through the organisation, and can deliver a range of ideas and experiences, allowing for richer conversations and better solutions and decisions. But only if we adopt an inclusive approach where everyone’s views are welcome and received without prejudice, scorn or simply as a box ticking exercise.”

Rachel Houghton, MD at Business Moves Group

“I don’t think women come with any magical powers that men don’t have. Just like I don’t think men come with any magical powers that women don’t have. It’s not about gender, it’s about balance. It’s about finding the right person, the right fit for the board – someone with the same aspirations and vision as the organisation they represent, someone who brings with them a certain energy that excites and motivates the people that are coming through the ranks.”

What challenges and opportunities have you faced in your career?

Karen Plum, director of Research & Development, Advanced Workplace Associates

“I have been fortunate to have had mostly supportive managers who encouraged and pushed me to go further than I would otherwise have done, helping to increase my confidence and willingness to take risks. I’ve worked in both safe and unsafe conditions during my career, at the hands of both men and women. Working within a psychologically safe environment allowed me to experiment and flourish. When working without that sense of safety, I withheld effort, felt disrespected and wasn’t willing to take risks, so I didn’t grow. While things have undoubtedly improved over the course of my career, there are still many people, both men and women, who don’t see the genders as equal, although they may wrap that up in a competence blanket. Not seeking each other as equals presents itself in many forms, from the subtle to the very blatant, and how we deal with that is the important thing.”

Rachel Houghton, MD at Business Moves Group

“I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to be given so much opportunity, so much freedom. Yes, I’ve met people along the way who haven’t got me, who have for whatever reason assumed I’m not right for the role I’ve been employed to do, who have challenged me. And I’ve grown from that. I’m sure that had I been a man coming up from a young age into a senior position that I would have faced similar challenges.”

What’s your main message this International Women’s Day?

Karen Plum, director of Research & Development, Advanced Workplace Associates

“As Simon Sinek says, be the leader you wish you had”

Rachel Houghton, MD at Business Moves Group

“Whoever you are, be the best version of you and be unashamedly you.”

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