When asked to write an article on women and enterprise for Global Entrepreneurship Week, the first thing that springs to mind is the poor state of our UK economy, and of various economies globally and the benefits that women in enterprise could add to these languishing economies. Enterprise within the UK and further afield has to and continues to play a vital role, particularly during these turbulent times.
However, were one to only read what happens in the largest blue chip companies that make the majority of the headline business news here in the UK, the FTSE 100 companies, then the assumption would have to be that female engagement is low; that there are very few female bosses, and that the very few women that are there, are exiting, and fast.
Chief executive of mining company Anglo American, Cynthia Carroll, is the latest casualty, leaving following demands from shareholders. Cynthia Carroll follows the resignation of Kate Swann from WH Smith and Pearson's Dame Marjorie Scardino. There are now just two female CEOs still standing in the FTSE 100 Index, Alison Cooper, Imperial Tobacco Group's chief executive and Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts.
Thank goodness that the outlook for women is more vibrant outside of the FTSE 100, with female CEOs including easyJet’s Carolyn McCall, TalkTalk Telecom Group's Dido Harding and Louise Makin, CEO of drug maker BTG. At the even more entrepreneurial end of the market, amongst SMEs and start ups, women are very much more present.
I believe that women have every opportunity to drive growth at a national level with SMEs and start up companies that need nurturing and to be led in the right way.
Women are usually good at nurturing businesses, at nurturing in general. Speaking from personal experience, nurturing tends to be what most of us women are doing when not at our desks, and doing constantly. Cultural and social attitudes to women in business therefore – if they remain an obstacle to enterprise realising its full potential – should and need to be somewhat “revived”.
American women are twice as likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity
As do various laws surrounding maternity and indeed paternity leave, to make it easier for women to get back into the workplace after a period of having children and/or an extended period of raising children. The larger successful companies in the UK need to continue to make progress in leading the way with flexible working hours and pragmatic approaches to mothers, parents in fact, in the work place as indeed I believe they are beginning to.
That being said, I do believe that if there are any barriers, they can be overcome, and that the opportunity is there for us women to grab, certainly in the UK. Women are often the dominant player in a domestic setting as regards budgeting, and planning and running a household, why not a business? Women can, dare I say it, multitask.
Why are we so good at multitasking? Because most women have to be; we have to keep any number of plates spinning and balls in the air. When friends and contacts say that after taking time out to bring up their families, there is nothing that they can do work wise and no role for them within the work force, it makes me think that there is no better training ground for almost any job or business than running something as complex as a household - organising everyone, keeping everyone happy, in the right place, at the right time and with the right kit! The tantrums that we learn to negotiate, the playground hierarchy that we navigate, the messages that we have to decipher....vital skills for any start up!
It was recently estimated that women constitute around 29% of self-employed people in the UK and that 15% (or 700,000) of the 4.8 million enterprises in the UK were majority-led by women. Comparing this, American women are twice as likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity as their UK counterparts. If the UK were able to attain this level of business ownership, then the UK would gain three quarters of a million more businesses.
The growth in women’s enterprise in the US has been aided by government recognition of its importance and a sustained commitment over the last three decades, in the form of affirmative action. Since the early 1990s, these policies have been discontinued but it is widely agreed that they served their purpose in bringing a generation of women into business ownership.
I am not a fan of quotas and of various targeted ‘female’ programmes, but it has clearly worked in the US, in the same way as quotas of female representation on Boards of Directors has worked in the Nordic countries. As a woman in business, the idea of quotas makes me feel uncomfortable, but perhaps they do serve a purpose if we look at the US experience of enterprise, and when you consider that only two out 100 companies in the FTSE 100 index are led by female CEOS. Clearly something needs to be done.
While the US experience has been successful, this isn’t to say that the UK provides a hostile environment for women looking to start up their own enterprises. There is little to stop women wanting to engage at a grass roots level and set up businesses, any more than for men to be entrepreneurs. The very definition of entrepreneur itself ignores gender: according to Wikipedia, an entrepreneur is an enterprising individual who builds capital through risk and/or initiative.
Women are nearly three times more likely to collaborate with research institutions
Surveys often however state that fear of debt is the biggest single obstacle to starting a business, the ‘risk’ bit as the definition above refers to. This fear affects both men and women, although some studies have claimed that women are significantly more fearful of debt than men. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that relative to my peers I will take less financial risk than some of my male peers running similar firms. Whether this can be explained more by personality traits than gender is difficult to say, as these things often are. However back to the definition above, the ‘initiative’ bit is the bit that we women usually have in bucket loads, again we need to in our domestic situations and plate spinning / juggling act in the daily act we perform.
London Business School recently found in a study that a third of the female population questioned would start a business if it wasn’t for the fear of failure. Whether this fear is justified is another matter. Women have clearly demonstrated examples of successful enterprise in the UK. The statistics suggest that a pound invested in developing women’s enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male enterprise. Reasons for this may be a somewhat more forward-thinking attitude to the market.
Women are nearly three times more likely to collaborate with research institutions, such as universities and are also more likely to offer a product or service that the market is unfamiliar with, using more technology in their products or services. In addition, they are more likely than male-ran businesses to produce and sell a product that has been developed within the last year.
Therefore perhaps the solution to this problem is to offer more support in the way of training to aspiring female entrepreneurs to engage within their areas of expertise and with new ideas for business actiity. However, to conclude on a pure statistical basis, if women started up business at the same rate as men, then the UK could have around 150,000 extra start-up companies annually.
Female enterprise within the UK and on the global stage surely needs to play a greater role, exactly because of these turbulent times.
Claire Louise Noyce is managing partner of Hybridan