Many people are unfamiliar with the fact that the history of female entrepreneurship reaches far back into the past, as far back as 108 BC. There are many more recent examples of women in business too. Margaret Hardenbroeck arrived in what would become New York in 1659 to establish herself as a debt collector. Mary Catherine Goddard became the first woman publisher in America in 1766. Madam CJ Walker owned a million-dollar haircare business in the 1890s. And Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in 1913.
However, during the mid 19th century, there was a shift in the labour force that saw women focusing on domestic tasks, while men became the sole wage earners. Until recently, such traditional gender roles have persisted. In 1973, for example, there was only one female CEO of a Fortune 500 company – Katharine Graham. At this time, only 38% of the workforce in the US were female. In 2019, that number increased to 46.2%, while 37 Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO.
So it looks like in the past 50 years we are heading in the right direction, but are we going fast enough?
Faye Long: We’re definitely heading in the right direction. More women than ever are starting businesses. And just in the last year 140,000 all-female firms were created. So there’s real momentum. On the flip side of that, the longevity of those businesses can be impacted by social caring responsibilities.
But if women were starting businesses at the rate that men were starting businesses, we could add £250 billion to the UK economy.
Pam, are we going fast enough? And if not, what’s holding us back?
PL: We are going fast enough. However, I’m concerned that Covid has had a negative impact. What it has done
to some extent is reinforce stereotypical notions around what a woman’s position should be.
So what we’ve seen is some reversal; women ending up going back to do the household chores and caring responsibilities. We’ve certainly seen cases of discrimination involving women who are on maternity leave or pregnant which we’ve not experienced for about 10 to 15 years.
It’s reassuring to hear about the number of women setting up businesses. My concern is - are they setting up a business because they were discriminated against in the workplace, and feel that setting up on their own is actually a solution that works for them?
We do celebrate the fact that so many women are opening their own businesses. Is that because they
want to or because they’re forced into it?
Alison Jones: I suspect many are probably forced into it. The ones I’ve come across setting up recently are doing it because they feel they can juggle better. They’ve just realised that to get the life that they want, and not be discriminated against, then the best thing to do is start their own business.
Rachel, what’s your view on the speed that we are attempting to reach gender equality?
Rachel Watkyn: When I was in education in the late 80s, I was sent to the careers office for guidance, and was told I could be either a secretary or I could join the army. Those were my options. So whilst we are saying, ‘gender equality isn’t there, and it should be,’ then if you look at the speed it’s happened in recent history, it has happened incredibly fast.
Fiona Anderson: For me, it’s actually the pace at which women are feeling comfortable and confident to be able to start their own businesses. Covid has maybe pushed that forward in terms of feeling they have been discriminated against, and had to leave their jobs. The feeling then is that their only route is to start their own business.
But there is an element also of ‘how sustainable are those businesses that women are starting?’ Is there the right support and funding available nowadays for them through accelerators or incubators? When I worked at the NatWest Accelerator, when we opened in August 2015, we had more women entrepreneurs than we had men.
I remember the early days of the NatWest Accelerator and there certainly was a very large contingent of females coming through. We were discussing the survival rate of female businesses. Do we feel the survival rate of female-run businesses is lower than male-run businesses?
FL: From the studies that we’ve looked at, more of the caring responsibilities for dependants, either children or elderly parents, mostly falls to females. Where that does impact, the stats show that those businesses are 62%
less likely to have recovered after the Covid pandemic.
When you’ve got a husband and wife and, say, two children, why are the men not doing as much as the women?
FL: My husband looks after our kids full time. I didn’t do any of the caring responsibilities. He was at home with the kids all the time. There’s apparently more men in the playground he chats to doing similar things.
Do you feel like you sacrifice that side of it for your career? Or do you think that the balance is OK?
FL: The balance is good. I don’t feel like I’ve lost out on anything. In fact, he’s gained more through doing some of the things that I would have done like organising stuff for the school, and doing the homework. He’s much more involved in the kids’ lives as a result of this.
Did your husband have to sacrifice his own career for this?
FL: We made the choice together. He stepped away from his career, and he’s now retrained. He’s gone down the route of wanting to start up his own business as an electrician, which was his choice. So it works.
PL: I don’t have young children now, but we have elderly parents, so we’re still talking about dependants. There’s still a large number of women that are caring for elderly parents as well. What I noticed what was there’s still probably more women than men working part-time and the reason they’re working part-time is because they’ve got caring responsibilities. Just by default, it seems the females took on responsibility during Covid.
Regarding Faye and her husband’s ‘traditional’ role reversal, he’s put his career on hold, while Faye goes out to do her job. It seems the other way round can work too.
PL: I’ve always said we’re never really going to get equality in this world until your male partner says, ‘I’m going golfing and I’ve arranged for somebody to look after our child.’ As opposed to, ‘I’m going golfing on Saturday…’, and then there’s silence because there’s an assumption that you are looking after the child. But it can work.
I don’t feel you can both have full-on careers when you’ve got children or dependants that need you as well; it’s very difficult. So usually one of you will decide that you’re going to have a more flexible approach. That might enable women to be more entrepreneurial, because they’ve got the facility to juggle things better.
One of the biggest issues we’ve got here is educating men. Someone somewhere needs to put some effort and time into teaching boys where their position is in the world.
FA: I went back to South Africa for three years, and it’s a very male dominated culture. I worked with women entrepreneurs out there. It was very interesting because a lot of the challenges were with women and their confidence in starting their own businesses. But ultimately, it was down to access to finance investment for funding to grow. It’s very difficult, because as a culture, men are seen to be the breadwinner. Each culture is different but you can certainly lead by example.
AJ: The other thing I was going say was about ‘Supermum’ - Nicola Horlick. She’s was in an article recently, saying she regretted the fact that she had gone on about how you could be a ‘Supermum’, and how you could do everything, and can run everything. She’s now realised that there were things that she missed out and that you can’t do and have everything.
She made other women feel inadequate. ‘Oh, 15 years later, I was wrong. It doesn’t work.’ That’s 15 years of women feeling inadequate, because ‘Supermum’ was a myth.
AJ: I know a lot of people, a lot of my peers felt that pressure and felt that they should be that ‘Supermum’. And because they couldn’t be, they felt they were doing something wrong.
Going forward, it’s a pendulum, isn’t it? The pendulum swung all the way one way where it was completely unequal. Men were the bosses, the women were looking after the kids and the home. And when that pendulum swings back to the middle, we must stop it going too far the other way. So I think it’s a case of trying to stop that pendulum in the middle rather than penalising men for past transgressions and seeing a new version of inequality.
AJ: My daughter, who Pam knows, is about to get promoted at work, and she lives with another girl who she was at university with. The other girl has suggested that the only reason why my daughter’s going to be promoted is because the boss fancies her.
And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘what are you on about?’ She’s working really hard; very committed and has to live with the fact that she might be promoted due to the boss fancying her.
FL: I’m not worried about it swinging too far the other way because we’re still not there; we’re still a way off.. We’re all making progress, which is great, but we still have quite a way to go for gender equality.
PL: I often get that we see men who are invariably older and white, who complain that they’re the least protected in society, and they get quite bitter about women and ethnic minorities that they feel might be getting placed ahead of them. But the reality is, the legislation is there to protect everyone. The challenge here is that we’re trying to make it equal and at the moment, there is still significant inequality, across funding, pay and society at large in terms of the way that people view women’s roles.
We’re in the midst of working on the Dynamic Business Awards and we’ve got three steering committee members here. One of the issues we have to overcome is that of imposter syndrome. What we’re asking for is women to enter business awards that are designed just for women. And there is that problem that many women wouldn’t presume to enter themselves for an award. There’s
a case of ‘I shouldn’t think I’m good enough to be Businesswoman of the Year’.
I gave a speech recently about impostor syndrome because I know a lot of men just don’t admit to it, this is not a female-only issue. We’ve partially got around the problem by nominations, therefore it is not that particular woman thinking she is good enough to enter but one of her peers. Does anybody recognise impostor syndrome?
FA: Very much so. I had a very interesting conversation with a man who’s very well known around Sussex, last year after an event that he ran, and he said to me, ‘I suffer from imposter syndrome, and always have,’ and especially now with his change in career direction, he said even more so.
It’s about your own mind and being confident in your own abilities. But I’ve never had that nurturing and reassurance about me as an individual, so I do suffer a lot with my own confidence in my own abilities.
AJ: I also recognise it. I had a boss at a previous firm who told me that I would never make a partner and I just wasn’t good enough or clever enough. And that took me many years to get over. I am now the only partner in my firm who doesn’t have a degree, and a part of me feels ashamed.
But then I think I shouldn’t be worried just because I haven’t got a degree. I should feel the other way. I’m a partner despite not having a degree. I rarely share the fact that I haven’t got a degree because I’m embarrassed about it. And that’s mad, isn’t it?
RW: Absolutely crazy, because you have defied convention. So it’s brilliant.
AJ: Yes, but I don’t tend to tell people normally.
How many years did it take you to get to that point and realising, actually, that’s the benefit in what you did – that you got where you got without the degree?
AJ: I feel a bit embarrassed about telling you now. So I don’t know if I ever have actually got over it. But I’m the sort of person who’s actually quite determined. And if someone says that to me, it actually makes me more determined.
Regarding investment, in 2018, for every pound of venture capital investment in the UK, businesses with all-female founders got one penny. Mixed-gender founding teams got 10p and all-male founders got 89p. I know it’s four years ago, but that’s just not good enough, is it?
FL: One of the reasons why we tried to put specific funding pots available for supporting female businesses is because there are challenges and we recognise that.
It’s not moving quickly enough. I still think there’s more male businesses being set up, meaning males are getting more funding than females. So we’re not at gender parity; there’s still more to do. But we have seen the number of female entrepreneurs is increasing; it’s a start.
RW: A friend of mine has an online pharmacy business. She’s 28, a doctor, and very bright. She’s trying to raise
£5 million in venture capital. She sent out her details to a lot of VCs. The response was pitiful. One group of VCs actually said to her, she was too risky because she was of childbearing age.
And then she called me about two weeks ago – in a rage. ‘Why did I never think of it? I’ve sent the VC pack from
my husband’s LinkedIn account. And I’ve had so many responses.’
AJ: In this day and age, that is appalling. It really is.
PL: But the problem is a lot of the VCs are still dominated by males. So we shouldn’t be too surprised that we’ve got this funding issue where there is discrimination going on. But I am surprised that they have been so blatant.
RW: I’m not. I have two investors. I went to a meeting with them and their honchos a couple of years ago. One guy said to me, ‘would I like a cup of tea?’. I said, ‘oh, that would be lovely. I’ll give you a hand’. He said, ‘oh, great,’ and left me to serve the entire team, even though it was my meeting with the VCs.
FA: Rachel and I attended an event just before International Women’s Day at Platform9 in Brighton and the one of the guest speakers was Maggie Murphy, CEO of Lewes FC.
Lewes became well-known for being the first football club to have equal pay for their men and women playing staff. And she said exactly the same thing happened to her when she attended one of the first board meetings where it was a roomful of men.
And in her presentation, that was hilarious. She had a picture up on the screen of a kettle and said, ‘don’t mention the kettle.’ She made a bit of a joke of it, but then she said that it just spoke volumes about the way her first meeting at the football club went.
Faye and I gave a speech at the NatWest event for International Women’s Day, and Maggie was speaking, and I was very impressed by her and l am delighted to see that she has submitted an entry for the Dynamic Awards.
FL: I was very impressed with what she said. And I think it taught me quite a lot about game of football and how hierarchical it is, even though Lewes Women were comfortably beating Crystal Palace’s women’s team.
FA: Just to go back to the question about the funding side, I’m not sure that it’s that there isn’t funding available, but some of it comes down to women not being confident in their financials in their business. And so there is an element again, of education, of just having had this mental block about even understanding or looking at your financials in your business. And then some of it is really having the confidence to stand up and or even ask about your funding requirements.
RW: You can go on to a lot of websites, and you can see there’s a cash flow template. From speaking to small businesses every week, there needs to be something like a series of YouTube step-by-step tutorial videos on how
you run your own business; how to run a cash flow, here is how you fill it in etc. There needs to be something that literally talks them through step by step. I’ve never found that resource.
Boys and girls all come out of education together. They all study maths, English, history and all the other various subjects. Is it a lack of knowledge or a lack of confidence in how to put a spreadsheet together?
PL: Quite often, there’s a lack of confidence in women. That applies in terms of women going for promotions too, because it’s historical that men will tend to say, ‘I can do this,’ and they’ll blag it where women will make a very considered decision based on what they’re capable of. And they’ll probably underestimate their capabilities.
AJ: If you’ve got a list of job qualities, a woman will be expected to meet all 10. A man will be have six or seven, and then look to blag the other three, so he’ll apply for it. But the woman won’t, because maybe she can only do nine. It’s a confidence thing.
FA: Men are all ‘fake it till they make it.’ Because they’ve got the confidence. But we will think, ‘oh, not sure if I’m quite qualified for that role. I can’t do that one thing, I’m sure they’re gonna ask me about that. And then I’ll be caught out.’ And we’re back to imposter syndrome.
There’s definitely empirical evidence of that being the case.
PL: But they won’t be coming in front of you as often really, because they’ll be holding back thinking, ‘I can’t do it’.
Possibly. But at least you know that, from a woman’s point of view, they’re going to tell you the truth, not how they think it could go if they wing it for long enough.
PL: I wouldn’t rely fully on that because you do get some women that do blag it and I’ve come across a few. I wrote an article on that recently about fakers. But you make a good point.
I’d say that it is a male thing, so I wonder where that comes from? If a female has good parents who are teaching her that she can do absolutely anything that any boy can do, where does that inherent imposter syndrome come from?
AJ: I’d say a lack of role models - across the board. Not just manufactured ones or famous actresses and pop singers.
RW: I’ve still got the same imposter syndrome. I’ve tried to recruit four male general managers in the last six years. I had to give myself a good talking to find out why I was following the same pattern of behaviour. In my head, a man was going to come and rescue the business because of my own lack of self belief; that’s my imposter syndrome. Five managers later, I’ve finally realised that I never needed rescuing in the first place.
FL: It’s a number of factors. There’s not one thing; it’s a complex. The theme of International Women’s Day was
great, break the bias. Even from such an early age, girls are treated differently than boys.
As a mum, am I more likely, if my daughter’s crying, to give her a big cuddle than I would my son? It’s inherent in society and it’s going to take a long time to undo that. Role models are really important, but it’s a number of different factors.
FA: It’s also role models in your work environment, not just your family. When I started at NatWest, I was actually quite lucky I had a female boss, which was probably quite rare in 2002, and she was amazing. She was then in her mid-50s, she was a very nurturing person, and she really did help me to have the confidence to apply for another role to move on in my career.
AJ: I think having a mentor, when you first start at work is really key. My first boss was absolutely brilliant and he remained a mentor for 15 years after I left.
FA: Within the bank, you can either be a mentor to somebody who is wanting to work their way up, or when we ran the accelerators, we encouraged bank employees if they wanted to take on a mentoring role with some of the businesses. I did act as a mentor for a couple of the younger graduates and then I had two mentors within the bank. It’s been invaluable to me.
FL: The reason I got this role is because I needed that extra confidence of somebody saying ‘you can do it.’ So absolutely, it’s so important.
Do you think it makes a difference whether the mentor is male or female?
PL: It might do on the entrepreneurial side of things because there might be challenges for women setting up businesses on their own that males may not be aware of.
There’s then a lack of numbers because there aren’t enough women that are running their own businesses to act as mentors. But certainly for female business owners, having a female mentor them would be better. Outside of that, with careers in the workplace, it shouldn’t really make a difference.
Moving on, it’s important to look at the gender pay gap, which is something I just don’t understand. How is Rachel or Faye worth less than me? The UK overall gender pay gap in 2020 was 15.5%. How do we fix this?
FL: It’s important to remember that gender pay is different from equal pay. Gender pay is much more aggregated. You can have 50% of males and females in roles across an organisation, but as you go higher up in that organisation, there are fewer females, and that starts to skew that gender pay gap figures.
RW: We did the gender pay gap exercise last November. We have 100 employees, but we thought we should do it. And I was horrified to see that we were actually the other way. Massive female bias. So that’s something that we’ve now got to address as an organisation, and make sure that we bring in more senior men.
Do you think that bias is because you’re a female running the business?
RW: I have promoted from within as hard as I can. When I started we had a lot of lower paid workers that were female, and I’ve pushed them through the organisation. So the senior team is largely female, apart from the operations manager, and my husband. Everybody else is female.
FL: We have to remember, equal pay is a like-for-like comparison on the same role.
RW: And in the same role, we paid everybody exactly the same regardless of gender. I don’t care, so long as they can do the job.
PL: What you’ve got is a gender imbalance. What you can then do, lawfully, is advertise to say, ‘we encourage men to apply’. You can actually do that if you really wanted to. So it’s slightly different to gender pay gap.
This discussion has been fascinating. If I can just ask each of you one final question - what advice would you give to your younger self?
AJ: Be braver and more confident. If I’d been braver, I would have been a journalist if l wasn’t an accountant, but I got talked into it. And, to be fair, I love it. The thing I love most is the fact that I’m dealing with people and clients. So… be brave, be more confident and you’ve only got one life, so if you’ve got a dream go for it.
PL: For me, I would probably say, ‘well done for listening to your mum’, who encouraged me to have an independent career. Be driven and determined to achieve with what you can achieve.
RW: I would say the same as Alison. Because when you’re dying on your deathbed, you’re not thinking about, ‘oh, I shouldn’t have done that.’ You’re thinking about all the things that you should have done, and you should have just taken the plunge, but you never took the risk. It’s the regrets of what you’ve not achieved as opposed to what you have.
FL: Don’t think too strictly about one career. It’s OK to change careers. You don’t have to do one thing for your whole career. You can change.
FA: Just have confidence in yourself, and not second-guess yourself. I was very lucky joining the bank. I’ve had a good career. So, just really listen to your own gut instinct.
Excellent. Thank you very much for your time. I’m aware that we could probably go on another three hours with this, but I thank you all very much for your time.