Smashing your way out of the glass ceiling

press Jun 05, 2010

In 2010 there were almost 1.2 million self-employed women – 30% more than there were in 2000 – but there is still a huge gap between female entrepreneurs and male entrepreneurs. Indeed, women in the UK are half as likely to set up a business as men – with 4% of working-age women engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to 9% of men.

When asked whether they believe they have the skills and experience to start up, 39% of working-age females say they think they do, while a quarter (25%) agree that there will be good start-up opportunities where they live in the next six months. So why are so few women taking the leap into entrepreneurialism?

Shannon Houde, Founder of career coaching business, Walk of Life Consulting Limited, has 20 years experience advising professional women about their careers within entrepreneurial, consulting, corporate, and NGO cultures. Here, she sheds some light on why this might be and shares her tips for women thinking about starting up.

I’ve worked with female entrepreneurs for the last ten years and, one thing I can tell you is that there is no lack of ambition when it comes to women wanting to do it for themselves. In fact, some of today’s most memorable entrepreneurs are women – think Martha Lane Fox, Michelle Mone, Coco Chanel, Tamara Mellon, Oprah Winfrey and even (love them or hate them), Victoria Beckham and Katie Price. But these women are the exception, not the rule.

So why are women holding back, and what can we do to inspire more women to make the jump into self-employment?

Firstly, I think it is useful to set the context. Unfortunately, women are still struggling to find complete equality in the workplace. Even 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the corporate world is not a level playing field. While female salaries are starting to level out, they still do not match the male equivalent, and board rooms in almost every sector are places noticeably bereft of women.

Struggling against this male-dominated working environment has taken its toll on women. While I’m cautious about making sweeping statements, this scenario has created a situation in the UK where women tend to be more reserved, less confident, less tapped into professional networks and less likely to take risks than men are. All of these factors act as deterrents to women starting up a business, even if they believe they have a good idea and can see opportunities for making their business work.

However, while this shift towards a more equal workplace will involve an extended process of cultural change over many years, I believe that the barriers of self-confidence and risk aversion can tactically be overcome, with the right support. It is a simple case of women believing in themselves.

If we look to America, where women tend to have more self-confidence and a greater willingness to push themselves forward, levels of female entrepreneurship are nearly twice as high as they are in the UK. Rates of male and female entrepreneurship are almost equal, with 7% of females involved in early-stage entrepreneurship compared to 8% of men. Indeed, if the UK had the same level of female entrepreneurship as the US, there would be approximately 600,000 more women-owned businesses.

American business people (men and women) have a fantastic sense of confidence in what they can do, which I think women in the UK could learn a lot from. In America, there is a relentless work ethic and entrepreneurs have to have complete confidence in who they are, their abilities and what they bring to the table, as well as the ability to be able to self-promote. Being able to stand up and be counted is one of the things, I think, that makes American women more likely to start up a business and make it a success.

So, if it is a case of confidence, what can British women do? My advice would be to seek the support you need to help you take the leap. This could be official sources of business support that will help you with the logistical and regulatory elements of starting a business, or more emotional or ‘ideas-based’ forms of support, such as mentors and female networking organisations.

For the practical sources of support, Business Link has launched a new start-up service My New Business which provides potential entrepreneurs with tools that can help them on their way – from helping people to work out whether they can work for themselves and offering guidance on business plan development, through to providing support finding financial help or developing a marketing strategy.

On the ‘softer’ side, but no less important, mentors and peer support networks can be highly beneficial in enabling women to bounce ideas off each other and build the confidence they need to successfully launch and build a business. Business Link’s improved Events Finder can put women in touch with local networking, training, and peer support opportunities; while the new service can help businessmen and women across the UK to find a mentor.

If women are able to find the confidence to start-up, I believe there could be significant benefits to leading an entrepreneurial life. The personal and professional advantages of entrepreneurship were highlighted in research released this week by Business Link, where 500 entrepreneurs (men and women) shared their views on the rewards of self-employment. For the 278 female entrepreneurs who answered the survey ‘satisfaction’ was the most highly valued benefit, with 88% of female entrepreneurs agreeing that they gain more job satisfaction than they would if they were working for somebody else. 85% believe they are more successful being their own boss, 83% cited ‘freedom’ as one of the biggest attractions and 77% said they think they ‘earn more money’.

So, my advice to the 25% of working-age women who can see good start-up opportunities where they live in the next six months. Have a long hard think about what your proposition is and how you’re going to make it work. If you believe you can make it work, then hold that belief with you and surround yourself with the information, support and people that are going to make you believe that you can do it.

This article was originally posted by The Independent.

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