My feminism was born in the 1960s when my guidance counselor offered me three career choices: secretary, nurse or teacher. I rejected those options and chose to go to journalism school, where I was shocked to learn that most major women’s magazines were edited by men. Eventually I became, to my knowledge, the first female editor-in-chief of a general business magazine. And in 2008, I joined the ranks of the 8 million American women who have started a business.
This trip down memory lane was triggered when a young female entrepreneur asked me who my role model was, and sadly, I didn’t have one. Like many women of my generation, I had to navigate my career trajectory without much guidance.
In the 1970s, millions of women joined the workforce, expecting equal pay. We were advised to “get an MBA” to attain parity. So women flooded the nation’s business schools, got MBAs and found themselves the first to be fired in the aftermath of the 1987 market crash and the 1990-91 recession.
Rise Of The Female Entrepreneur
But those circumstances led to that decade’s entrepreneurial revolution and the concurrent rise of the female entrepreneur. (Check out the history of entrepreneurial women at the National Women’s History Museum.) The 1990s were a heady time for women business owners. The startup rate for women-owned businesses was at least twice the general startup rate. States appointed women’s business advocates. The federal government was fueled by the efforts of the Small Business Administration’s Betsy Myers, who headed the Office of Women’s Business Ownership, and Amy Millman, who was the executive director of the National Women's Business Council.
And it worked. Or we thought it did. The predictions were women, who owned just 4.6 percent of all U.S. businesses in 1972, would own half by 2000. We didn’t, and 13 years after the "deadline," we still don’t. According to The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, today women own about 8.6 million (or about 29 percent) of U.S. businesses. Does this reflect a lack of progress for women entrepreneurs?
Are We Stuck?
Millman, who is the co-founder and president of Springboard Enterprises, a company that helps women build high-growth businesses, recalls those days, saying, “There’s no real way to analyze the numbers, particularly when the newest census data you get is, at minimum, five years old.” She told me to “get over” my notion of women entrepreneurs being stuck. Millman believes women today are better prepared for the entrepreneurial experience. “The environment has changed,” she insists. “Women today have more business experience, are more self-confident and cognizant of what it takes to be successful. And the barriers are not quite so high anymore.”
Myers, the founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, points out the lack of movement is not confined to entrepreneurship, but is also reflected by the paucity of women in corporate senior management roles. She says it’s “stunning there hasn’t been more progress.” But, like Millman, who believes it takes a generation for change to take hold, Myers thinks a transformation is about to happen—courtesy of millennials, who will make up 47 percent of the workforce next year. “Workplace culture is still in the dark ages—it hasn’t caught up to the needs of the new workforce,” she says.
Myers also suspects part of the issue is “men define themselves by their careers; women don’t.” That, she says, will change as millennials, who want a more balanced life, join the workforce. Penina Rybak, author of the upcoming The NICE Reboot: The Guide to Becoming a Better Female Entrepreneur, agrees, saying one reason “women still lag behind men is because our access to funding and technology training have been hampered by the still skewed work/life balance we attempt, and the gender-specific roles we are often expected to step into.”
Barbara Kasoff, the president, CEO and cofounder of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), says women aren’t necessarily stuck, but they “continually evaluate where they need to be and what the possibilities or opportunities are, relative to their businesses and their family needs at any given time.” But, she adds, women are “now often in a position to ‘make the decisions’ because we have learned to advocate, to speak up and to work together on issues we have in common.”
Lack Of Funding For Women
And then of course, there’s the money issue. Colleen DeBaise, the director of digital media at The Story Exchange, a global video project empowering women to start businesses, says women “lack access to capital, especially from venture capitalists, who tend to be older white men. Many women say they're still dogged by the stereotypes that they lack business savvy or financial know-how.”
Myers notes that women who need money “still brush up against a male-dominated” world where men would rather do business with their friends. This behavior is also, according to DeBaise, reflected in “the dearth of women in tech startups.” While, she says, the “lack of advancement is [due in part to] the difficulty of accessing venture capital, you've got the additional problem that the all-important ‘ecosystems’ created in Silicon Valley, New York, Austin, etc., are almost exclusively young, white, ‘nerdy’ guys.” This is notable, DeBaise says, “because tech startups can be ‘The Next Big Thing’—high-impact companies that employ thousands and generate billions in revenue.”
So are there solutions? Can women grow their businesses more like men do? Do they even want to? According to the Center for Women’s Business Research:
- 13 percent of women-owned businesses generate annual revenues over $100,000, compared with 30 percent of male-owned businesses
- 12 percent of women-owned businesses have employees, compared with 23 percent of male-owned businesses
- 1.8 percent of women-owned firms have revenues of $1 million or more, compared with 6.3 percent of male-owned firms
DeBaise says in surveys of women business owners at The Story Exchange, they’ve found most of the American business owners surveyed so far predict they will be making under $1 million in five years, “so clearly hyper-growth is not on their minds.”
But if it's on your mind, Millman advises you to be less accommodating. “Women volunteer too much,” she says. “We’re giving too much away.”
Myers agrees, adding that there’s “confusion of how women are supposed to behave. Women are told to act more like men—and when they act that way, they get their hands slapped. We [both men and women] need more balanced leadership behaviors,” says Myers, “We need to dial down the male and dial up the female.”
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