International Women’s Day: Is starting a business as a woman easier than ever?

Today’s annual International Women’s Day, from a professional standpoint, seeks to highlight institutional sexism, effect change in what is often deemed as unfair pay discrepancies between the sexes, and influence fairer treatment of women in general in the workplace.

It’s a movement that has gained an extraordinary amount of traction, and any initiative that draws attention to the perceived injustices of business practices and promotes important discussion of critical issues is a good thing. But when it comes to starting businesses, research raises the question of how much women need the leg-up of catchy hashtags and gender tribalism to succeed in today’s entrepreneurial landscape.

According to a study released last year by Aston University the number of new female entrepreneurs in the UK has risen far faster than men in the past decade. The institution, using data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) shows that between 2003-6 and 2013-16, the proportion of women that went into business rose by 45 per cent, compared to just 27 per cent among men.

Women going it alone

Dr Karen Bonner, senior researcher at Aston Business School, says that when asked why they started their business, women are significantly more likely to cite ‘greater flexibility for my personal and family life’ and the desire for ‘freedom to adapt my own approach to work’ than men.

But despite these differences, and controlling for other factors like sector, age and start-up capital, both men and women display similar levels of ambition when it comes to growing their businesses.

Bonner also observed a tendency for women generally to be more risk-averse which may make them self-select out of entrepreneurship, particularly in places where there are ‘safer’ employment options that allow them to work more flexibly around caring responsibilities. ‘This would help to explain why places like Northern Ireland and the North East of England, with relatively high proportions of public sector jobs, have low start-up rates for both men and women,’ she says.

Nikki Robinson MCSP, managing director of Holisticare, believes that women actually have an advantage in starting a business in the UK today. ‘Our advantage is the natural ability to network effectively, so we are able to use the knowledge and experience of our friends, family, colleagues and local business contacts,’ she says. ‘But networking is a two-way process and women understand that. It is no good expecting everyone to hand you their referrals and contacts on a plate, so developing relationships and being willing to give as well as receive leads to long-term success.’

The statistics suggest that women are making real progress in entrepreneurship, but according to many, barriers still remain.

So, is starting a business as a woman easier than ever?

The case for

Sarah Louise Smith, founder of social media strategy company SL Social

Honestly, I believe it’s easier to start a business as a woman.

We have this perception that we are all trying to change – this is done by empowering one another. I launched completely on my own in August 2015 and what made me never quit was the women I spoke to via Facebook groups – other women like me trying to start a business after quitting a high-powered career.

Men don’t interact as much and care a lot more about denting their pride. I think many men would be daunted or would actually fail at a start-up within a year through lack of support from other men wanting to help their business rise from the top.

“The support I gained from women was such a key driver for my success”

If I were to give any advice to a woman wanting to start their business today, it would be to lean on other women all over the world to build your confidence and business.

When I started SL Social in August 2015, I was completely alone. I had a dream and a passion, so fuelled with determination I quit my high-flying career in the advertising industry so set up alone as a social media coach. But I was isolated. My work friends ‘unfriended’ me and others around me either didn’t understand my goal or were concerned it wouldn’t work. That’s when I joined an array of private Facebook groups full of women all over the world who were in the same position as me. I asked for help, they gave advice. We shared motivational quotes to drive each other along every day.

The support I gained from women I didn’t actually know was such a key driver for my success, so much so that I created my own Facebook Group to help others in starting and maintaining a successful business.

If you want to start a business, do it! Be you, be genuine and get help from other women; because behind every successful business woman is a tribe of women who have her back.

The case against

Melanie Harwood, founder of tutoring company Start-Bee Handwriting

It is much easier to start a business as a man!

I am a mumpreneur and I started the Start-Bee UK Handwriting Scheme, offering step-by-step handwriting lessons delivered by a little girl, that is now streamed into hundreds of classrooms up and down the country.

I feel that women are not always taken seriously and we have to work twice as hard to knock down those doors to access start-up finance. I never got that and had to do it all myself.

The more I presented our original business plan and strategy to banks, potential investors, and business advice hubs, the more I felt I received the initial knockbacks because I was a woman.

I attracted a marketing and PR specialist who became a shareholder and she helped us find an astute male mentor with excellent business acumen. The mentor brought about a pivotal turning point to our mindset and our business as a whole. He opened doors to us which were originally closed and we were no longer rebuffed.

“Having a man as our figurehead was what everybody expected”

Even our original sponsors took us more seriously when our male business mentor attended meetings with us. The top tier marketing executives were all women but they were more ‘accepting’ of our ideas and proposals because we now had a man on our team. It was our business but having that man as our ‘figurehead’ and ‘leader’ was what everybody wanted and expected.

Women still have a long way to go to accept that other women CAN run a business successfully, raise the funding to finance it, take it to the next level and deliver that exponential growth. These attributes and qualities are not only the domain of men.

I am extremely grateful to our mentor, who has advised us and guided us through our entry level phase and onto our scaling up phase; he is not only an extremely successful businessman but he is more understanding of us because he has raised two daughters. Accordingly he is certainly a man very much in tune with his very own feminine side and he has been the perfect conduit to open up our business mindset to what we could very easily achieve, regardless of the barriers that were initially placed before us as women entrepreneurs.

It is men like him who will tear down the walls for all the women entrepreneurs in the future. These are the men who are changing the face of business and the world because they are guiding women through the walls and the barriers that hinder us. We need more men like this.

The neutral view

Jessica Lorimer, sales and leadership coach

I think men and women face different challenges when setting up a business. Men are goal-orientated and generally focused on making the business profitable, whereas women have been conditioned by society not to rock the boat. Typically women score higher in areas such as conflict management and emotional intelligence (according to a recent Korn Ferry study) but this also means that they’re more focused on the potential emotions of their clients and not necessarily focused on profit first.

“Women are fantastic at establishing longer-term, mutually beneficial relationships”

Women also face societal discord such as the gender pay gap, and for many women, pricing (and profit margins) can be difficult to manage with confidence when starting a business. Women tend to be more reactive when it comes to business development and that can mean that longer term goals are difficult to set and achieve; however, women are fantastic at establishing longer-term, mutually beneficial relationships which gives them a greater outlook in the long term with elements like PR, long-term customer value increases and brand building.

Further reading on women in business