Ladies who launch: women and funding speaks to five high-achieving women to find out whether it really is a man's world.

It is said that women have to work twice as hard as men to succeed in business. A glance at the figures suggests that the fairer sex continues to get a raw deal in commerce. Only nine female CEOs grace the FTSE 250 and a recent survey by the Institute of Directors showed the pay gap between male and female directors to be 22 per cent, up three per cent on the year before.

For Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of Coffee Republic and now managing director of healthy confectionery venture Skinny Candy, it’s disempowering to linger on these factual inequalities: ‘I’ve never come across any gender difference when it comes to entrepreneurship. All we have to do for future generations is remove these mental barriers, as the idea that gender remains an issue is so outdated.

‘If you’re an entrepreneur, it’ll be difficult. The world will be against you and think your idea is mad whether you’re a woman or a man. You can’t start thinking: this isn’t working because I’m a woman. That’s just rubbish.’

Susanna Simpson, managing director of Limelight PR, which she started five years ago aged just 24, knows first hand what it takes to get people to believe in you.

The company is growing fast and has recently moved offices to Grosvenor Place, near Buckingham Palace. She recalls that being young, blonde and female was an issue when starting out: ‘Every single person I pitched to was male and I certainly had meetings where, although we had a great rapport on the phone, I walked into the boardroom and had a few looks.’

Rather than intimidate Simpson, this fired her up to make sure she was taken seriously: ‘It was a great feeling when they started listening. I’ve never experienced sexism or anything like that, but I enjoyed the challenge of turning it around.’

Like Hashemi, Simpson believes the debate about gender can be something of a red herring. ‘I don’t understand why there are groups for women in business. I hate the clubs that are out there as I think they almost reinforce a separation into two groups.

‘In my view, if you’re good at business and passionate about growing a company, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. I don’t want to spend my time meeting women in business, I just want to meet people who are good at business.’

Harriett Green is one of the nine female CEOs in the FTSE 250, heading up electrical components specialist Premier Farnell. Throughout her 22-year career, she’s worked at high-profile companies in Asia and North America, where she observes that ‘it’s a lot more diverse, regardless of age, sex, colour, creed or sexuality’.

That the UK remains different strikes her as a mystery: ‘I meet a lot of very capable and smart women who are lawyers and doctors, and I wonder if business is the less desired route for highly capable women.

‘Maybe it’s an environment in which you can’t do everything that you want to, or it could be that diversity and the benefits of recruiting the best people, regardless of backgrounds, are not as recognised here as they are in Asia and North America.’

The lifestyle question, especially when children come into the equation, may well be a factor. According to the IoD’s research, around a quarter of directors work in excess of 55 hours a week, and only 20 per cent take their full holiday entitlement.

Angela Maxwell, commercial director at coffee provider Fracino, argues that concerns about childcare facilities, tax credits and so on, which could make the working environment easier for women with families, form the secondary part of a deeper problem: ‘The important side is making sure that opportunities exist for women per se.

We have to engage with women who want to get into business or a traditionally male sector – it’s about making women believe they can do it.’

Fresh attitudes

Change is needed at a grass-roots level, she adds: ‘Women prefer to have advice from women, so you need more female advisers with proper enterprise experience.’

Maxwell goes as far as to endorse the US approach of positive discrimination, whereby female owner-managers must be considered in the tendering process of big business and the public sector: ‘It’s saying to these organisations: “Look at what’s out there, as you may be missing out.”’

Green states that a company will be at a disadvantage if it doesn’t embrace a diverse approach: ‘From my point of view, we get the best people regardless of where they’re from or who they are. Business environments must reflect diversity and the communities they represent. The question that you have to ask is: are you getting the best people?’

While efforts are being made to bring about equality, evidently an undercurrent of chauvinism prevails in business. Hilary Devey, founder and managing director of pallet distribution network Pall-Ex, has no trouble summarising the gender gap: ‘If you’re a woman in business you have to be better than a man, and I don’t say that lightly.’

In 1996, Devey was a single parent with a seven-year-old child. She’d worked in logistics for 25 years and came up with the idea of creating a network for hauliers to co-ordinate shipping pallets of freight across the UK.

All or nothing

Looking back, she says: ‘I couldn’t fail, but I knew it would work because the concept was right. What I proposed was environmentally aware, which was coming to the fore even in those days, as it took trucks off the roads and it was cost effective. If I got hauliers to stand back and think about the idea, it was the simplest solution.’

That’s not to say she didn’t need to do some persuading. ‘The concept was unheard of and I was a female in a man’s world. There was a bit of “What the hell is she talking about?” and “Who does she think she is?”’

Today, Pall-Ex is an award-winning concern with the core business turning over £27 million and a franchising agreement in Italy just signed. The plan is to roll out across Europe.

Devey says: ‘When I started, I had to drive around 2,000 miles a week on visits. A typical day involved leaving home at a quarter to five in the morning, getting back at nine at night, putting my son to bed and then sitting down on the computer to write to the people I visited that day, as well as introduce myself to other companies.’

And it hasn’t stopped. ‘There is talk about a work/life balance,’ continues Devey. ‘That doesn’t exist if you’re female: it’s a work/work balance.’

The causes of inequalities between men and women are easy to identify for Devey: ‘It starts at the cradle. I gave a talk a few weeks ago and said: “Hands up all of you who’ve done some kind of domestic chore this morning, such as taking the kids to school, ironing or going to the supermarket.” Nearly all of them put their hands up. Then I asked: “How many of your husbands did the jobs for you?” Nobody raised a hand. That’s why it’s more difficult for a woman.’

A widening pay gap shows that further effort is required to bring about parity in the workplace, if for no other reason than because it’s in the best interests of commerce to have the strongest available pool of talent out there. As Maxwell says: ‘The US has shown that encouraging female enterprise boosts the economy – full stop. Women need to be told they can do it.’

See also: Surge in female entrepreneurs and start-ups narrows ‘enterprise gap’ – The UK has witnessed a rapid rise in the number of start-ups in recent years. But the number of new female entrepreneurs in the UK has risen far faster than men in the past decade.

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