Are small businesses fully open to gender equality?

Beatrice Bartlay looks at how small companies can support and inspire equality from entry level employees upwards.

Women are beginning to gain a stronger stance in the boardroom, and with recent research from EEF revealing that one in five directors at FTSE 100 companies are now female, there’s certainly been a movement in corporate culture from seven years ago where all directors in FTSE 100 companies were male. Bearing these figures in mind, it is clear that there is less male dominance in the boardroom, but this must not be mistaken for the idea that gender equality has finally been achieved in business, particularly for SMEs.

Gender equality in business is about equal opportunity and treatment; not filling quotas. It is about the belief that those of any gender can progress in their careers if their performance indicates that they should do.

Regardless of gender, in the current economic climate, it’s important for businesses to build on employee skills because talent is what will take your business to the next level. There is a place for women in every workplace, and businesses can gain valuable knowledge, and a variety of insights, through the employment of both genders. Small businesses can acquire tremendous value through gender equality, as striking a balance can bring different perspectives and ideas, which can often fuel the business growth that these companies aim for.

A recent CIPD report found that 1.25 million British women worked for themselves in 2013 – whether that’s owning a business or working independently – an increase of 19 per cent since 2008. But although women are increasingly self-employed, there has actually been no change in women’s share of business ownership since 1992. The gap between the number of male entrepreneurs compared with female entrepreneurs is narrowing, yet it could be improved further through more women gaining management skills, as well as the ambition and the confidence to start a new business. The ambition and passion for success, combined with the ability to achieve a flexible work-life balance, which could be done alongside starting a family, makes owning a business a desirable career choice for both men and women.

Female entrepreneurs represented in popular media often tend to be involved in businesses operating in areas such as retail, arts, food, crafts, beauty, healthcare etc. It’s all very cute and reinforcing of the type of roles women are likely to fulfill, plus ‘mend and make do’ style businesses are very en vogue, but there is a risk that it is not sustainable. It is motivating to see more women represented as business owners, but we need to encourage those women who are in less conventional female positions to come forward and share their stories to inspire diversity.

After all, what about the woman who has set up an engineering company, the CIO, the welder, or the manufacturer?

But on the flipside, for women making their own way through the corporate world working for others, there are still certain challenges, despite much improvement. They are frequently pushed away from male-dominated industries and career opportunities that would give them better access to promotion and salary. Not forgetting that the ‘pay gap’ is still there; figures from the ONS say that it currently stands at 15.7 per cent.

Other factors include stereotypical ideas that women would prefer to have a baby and look after the children at home, so that will (in effect) cause implications to their performance and progression. Even if they are not planning to have children for several years, it is still in the minds of business leaders. These are weak assumptions, and should not be accepted as barriers for women not achieving goals. Succeeding in business and striving for higher positions requires intelligence, diligence, ambition and hard work; having children does not affect a woman’s chances of getting to the top – perseverance and passion does.

For both entrepreneurs and employees, a woman’s ability to work her way up lies in investment in management, leadership and ownership skills. There’s much that small businesses can do to support gender equality, by leading from the front, recognising exceptional talent and nurturing individuals as early on as possible.

With a fresh mindset, and the potential to quickly learn and adapt to new skills, building talent arguably lies in young people and the next generation of professionals and skilled workers, as they are a key part in improving and sustaining the equality and diversity at every level in the economic talent pool of the future. Universities and colleges therefore play a key part in motivating and inspiring young people of any gender to pursue roles in businesses in any sector. Small businesses may benefit from partnering with local universities and colleges to invest more time in this generation to snap up diverse and promising talent.

Ultimately, an ideal vision of the future of business is one with talent that is fuelled by the diversity of gender which is not just for meeting quotas, but to build on the success of small businesses. Inspiring and supporting the development of skills at all levels can make it achievable for women to gain more confidence to succeed in business, enabling them to build a strong stance in corporate culture.

Further reading on women in business

Beatrice Bartlay

Beatrice Bartlay

Author and businesswoman, Beatrice helps entrepreneurs build and grow profitable businesses.

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Women In Business

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