To celebrate International Women's Day, I want to explore life as a woman in micro business in Britain and how far (or not) we have come.
Prequel - As a mum to two young men and founder of a micro business community that welcomes all genders, I'm aware that I've held back on this blog for a few years out of a misplaced concern that by talking about women's experiences of business I would somehow alienate others inside our Simply Club or beyond. Of course, I realise now that opening up this conversation is of value to everyone & provides a small pause for thought and spark of inspiration for something better.
I thought I would start with some data. I have used two sources for this post, The UK Female Entrepreneurship Index from Tide.co and the latest edition of The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship.
145,200 new female led companies were formed in 2021 compared to just 56,200 in 2018. This is great news & is backed by the statistic that growth of female owned small businesses has risen by 18% since 2017.
However, the positive figure of 18% of women surveyed [Tide.co] who said they have considered setting up a business, is marred by the top barriers for not going ahead (these barriers made up nearly 70% of the reasons why a woman might not actually start a business):
Not enough savings or access to funding
Too risky to take the leap
Not enough confidence to do so.
These stats really stopped me in my tracks. To understand more, I read the Rose Review paper some more & they highlight the three core barriers or challenges to female owned businesses in this extract,
"The pandemic.... has exacerbated the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs in starting and scaling their businesses. We must be frank about its impact. Female entrepreneurs have spent twice as long on caring responsibilities during the pandemic as their male counterparts, and their businesses were less likely to recover. As a result, an unacceptable disparity between men and women starting businesses remains. Female-led businesses are still underfunded and new businesses are almost three times as likely to be started by men than women. The consequences are profound. In 2019, we noted that £250bn could be added to the UK economy if women in the UK matched men in starting and scaling businesses. We have only just begun to realise that value which can be a critical contributor to UK economic growth."
We can see that there are still these key challenges for women in Britain in 2023:
access to fair funding
disproportionate caring responsibilities
good access to support that really caters for their experiences
My experience of micro business ownership for myself, as well as clients and networks and through the stories I hear almost every day reflect much of the data above.
I hear the word 'exhausted' a lot with from my own lips and those of many many others. Without fail, every woman in business I come across has other roles & responsibilities to manage. Care of children, elderly parents or community matters are all in the mix. It's no wonder that there are high levels of real tiredness (& all the reduction in creativity & capacity that brings) for those also trying to start, grow or scale a small business.
Imagine how great open & practical conversations among everyone might be the key to unlocking new money into our economy? Providing a new equality of opportunity for women now and in generations to come might be the conversation we need in the UK to address some of the issues of productivity & entrepreneurial stagnation we face. If caring roles aren't shared more evenly between genders, organisations or communities, then I fear the true potential of female entrepreneurship will continue to falter.
Funding continues to be a challenge with disproportionately low numbers of women being successful in accessing financial support.
My own experience, shared below, is just a tiny illustration of what is being faced in the 21st century. I never forget going for some grant funding some years ago. After liaising with a very positive woman to fill in the lengthy application and being assured that, compared to other applications, it was robust, I was invited to a board interview. 8 men behind a long table who proceeded to laugh at my application, question the validity of my business, mock my understanding of basic business principles (as they saw them) and humiliate me with their eye rolling & tittering to each other. With full acknowledgement that my application may not have been good enough, I shook for hours afterwards, pretty sure that no man would ever have been subjected to such an ordeal. This experience really begun to open my eyes to some of the inequalities faced by many. It is vital that female entrepreneurs have equal access to funding sources. I have only applied for funding once since then which was successful and administered by a woman I might add!
So what about good access to support & encouragement for women in micro business?
This, I'm so pleased to say is much much better. From women only networks to inclusive all gender communities, from women only business angels to women mentors & leaders, this landscape is changing all the time. Provision of access to networks and communities that understand the female experience of business is a vital component to build confidence, share specific wisdom and step outside & beyond negative experiences.
Having an empathic and flexible approach to business support, addresses the key and specific challenges we might experience in order to overcome barriers and challenges to fulfil business vision and goals.
Business theory, accepted status quo or linear models often don't account for the legitimate and transformative effect of a female led micro business. Profit may not be key. Exponential growth may not be desired. Balanced working hours may be a priority. Experiences over commodities may be the goal. Collaboration over competition is often preferred, but using this more sustainable approach to business is often a better fit for women providing a 'people, places, planet' focus over growth at all costs.
Where do these experiences and statistics lead us?
It's clear that there's a desire among women to start & run businesses and that female owned businesses are growing in number. We have seen that there are still clear and specific barriers to women accessing the support & funding they need to help transform their lives, communities and the UK as a whole. We know that there is still a caring gap in Britain that is limiting the ability for women to do business as successfully as their capabilities.
By highlighting the specific and very real experiences of women on International Women's Day, we shine a light on opportunities for the benefit of all of society. Inequality of any sort ensures that our communities are only as healthy and prosperous as those who are the worst off among us.
Want to meet some of the amazing women (& chaps!) from Simply Club? Dive in.
Wishing all my fellow women micro businesses owners much love and support today and always, Emily x