The way forward for women in business

At Addidi, our women in business clients usually have one of three profiles. They’re either entrepreneurs and self-employed or they’re business leaders – getting close to or already sitting at the top table of their company or profession.

We say ‘usually’ because we know only too well it’s never ‘business as usual’ for the majority of women in business.

The rising number of us entering the workforce over the last forty years and our new economic power means we have increasing quantities of data available to track, analyse and understand what’s really going on in women’s working lives. This information is essential for benchmarking our progress, identifying challenges ahead and recording our experiences for future generations. It helps us present the case for change.

While the data can tell us a lot, conversations with our clients and women in our wider network help fill out the psychological picture. What’s clear is there isn’t a uniform landscape or experience for women in business.

An uneven landscape

We’re making incredible strides forward and rising to some of the biggest challenges of our day. Women are pioneering new business models and we’re advocating fairer, more flexible ways of working. Yet we’re still experiencing the cultural challenges that remain deeply embedded in many business sectors.

Entrepreneurs doing good business

The “Enterprise Gap”, the difference in the number of men and women owning companies, has decreased significantly in the last decade. Women are excelling at starting up successful businesses yet of the 5.5m SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) operating in the UK today, still only 20% (1.14m in total) are led by women. The gap between the number of male and female entrepreneurs may be closing, but it still exists.

Investment in women’s enterprise also remains low considering evidence that we are more likely to start businesses that are successful in the long-term. We’ve responded by forming investment groups and clubs – like Addidi Angels – to help fill the funding gap for talented entrepreneurs. Given the success of women entrepreneurs and the UK’s increasing dependence on SMEs for economic growth, this is simply good business.

The female entrepreneurs we work with put their values at the core of their business or define themselves as social entrepreneurs. Implicit in this is a sustainable approach to business that doesn’t focus solely on a profit-at-all-cost agenda. By giving back and treading lightly when it comes to environment and communities, female entrepreneurs are redressing the balance in our business ecosystem. This is hugely important for transforming business – culture and impact – in the long term.

We can do more to support each other. We want women to take the lead here and invest in enterprising women. We can use our economic power to help each other succeed and this will encourage the wider investment community to choose female enterprise too. This is how we’ll change the game.

Business leaders push through

As well as the increase in female entrepreneurs in recent years, the rise in women’s directorial roles in big business is impressive. In the last quarter of 2018, the milestone 30% quota for women on FTSE 100 boards was surpassed. This exceeds the target set in the 2011 governmental report that required a minimum of 25% female representation on boards.

That’s great news and the trend is also being matched in the FTSE 250, in which 62 companies have reached 30% representation of women, with only 9 men-only boards remaining, down from 131 in 2010.

Looking across different sectors in FTSE 100 companies, female representation on boards has also changed quite dramatically in the past 10 years. In 2007, there were no women on the boards of companies in the construction sector, and only 4% in manufacturing. Both sectors are now operating at or above the government’s target of 25%, with representation of 29% and 25% respectively.

However, some business sectors remain stubbornly excluding of female talent at all levels. My own sector tops that particular list. We all know that greater gender diversity leads to stronger financial performance, more constructive discussions and encourages disruptive thinking – which is essential for innovation.

While the Women in Finance Charter may have highlighted diversity issues, the financial sector is not acting fast enough to capitalize on the ‘diversity dividend’. It’s hard to understand how the sector will attract top talent in the future if it doesn’t take the opportunity to make positive change now.

Self-employment for flexibility and fulfilment

Self-employment is on the rise. Between 2008 and 2016 women accounted for over 80% of the new self-employed.
There are clear reasons why women are choosing this way of working. Flexibility around other responsibilities including childcare, are obvious practical benefits.

Many women choose to start up their own businesses in order to have more meaning in their
work and it is this combination of purpose and balance that motivates women to choose self-employment.

FSB (National Federation of Self Employed and Small Businesses) members report that self-employment has made a big difference in their lives – 61% said that changing how they worked has helped them to achieve a much better work/life balance, while 79% said that they greatly value having independence at work. 51% said that self-employment had given them the ability to fulfil a personal vision9.

Often corporate cultures simply don’t work for women. But self-employment isn’t the right solution for everyone. Inflexibility from employers, poor workplace cultures and financial necessity can force women into ‘involuntary’ self-employment, when it feels like the only option left. This is far from ideal but not uncommon.

The power of the ripple effect

Most of us have thankfully moved on from mimicking the worst of 1980s male behaviour in the workplace as our recipe for success. Whether you are a business leader, self-employed or an entrepreneur how you behave at work matters and has a profound effect on the culture.

It feels right to bring a sisterly, generous set of behaviours to other women in business. By extending a supportive hand to each other, we can lead by example and change the dynamics of business culture. It is up to us to take individual responsibility for setting positive, inclusive behaviours and defining expectations at work.

In a large corporate the impact of a woman taking more flexible working arrangements without compromising on her pay package sends a powerful message to other women in the company. The same is true when we extend a helping hand to a colleague, employee or business partner. If we shy away from these opportunities and conversations we are passing up on the opportunity to create positive change for other working women.

Forging powerful partnerships

Changing culture is difficult. We can’t do it on our own. Sharing our experiences is where the process begins but we need cooperation from powerful, like-minded men too in order to make deep, lasting changes. Respecting a culture’s values even as we push for new ideas and practices to be adopted is important.

It’s through communication, collaboration and cooperation that we’ll make the most profound and positive difference which will benefit all of us.

We are beginning to shape a different, inclusive and more balanced ecosystem and that’s exciting. We need to draw inspiration from each other to keep up the momentum for positive change.