March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day.
I started my first business in 1986. In so many ways, it’s better to be a woman in business today than 30 years ago, but we still have a long way to go to make the American workplace – including small businesses – truly female friendly.
As a woman who’s been in the business world for three decades, I thought this would be a good time to look what’s changed for female small business owners and entrepreneurs, what hasn’t changed, and, alas, what’s gotten worse. Here goes:
What’s changed for the better?
Expectations of what women can accomplish. My first job in San Francisco included fundraising. Many of those interviewing me didn’t believe a woman could raise funds, especially from wealthy men. Now, it is (generally) understood that a woman can succeed in virtually any field.
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Female role models. There’s an old saying: “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Now girls and young women observe women in all kinds of leadership roles. When President Joe Biden gave the State of the Union address, the two people sitting behind him – the second and third in line for the Presidency – were both women, including one woman of color. Now, there are women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – not enough of them – but some. It’s now not unusual to see a woman owning a business, being a boss.
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A lot more female-owned businesses. Women owned 2.5 million businesses in 1980, according to the Small Business Administration. Those businesses earned an average of $2200, or 31.5% of what male-owned businesses earned. By 2019, there were nearly 13 million female-owned businesses, and those businesses generated annual revenue of $384,359, or 51% of what male-owned businesses generated.
Women are less competitive with one another. In the 1980s, in many companies, hiring a woman was just a token gesture, and if one woman got a position, it meant no other woman would. As more opportunities have opened, women are more supportive of one another. There’s more “female power” than cat fighting.
Sexual harassment is now taken a bit more seriously. When I was a young employee, I’d often hear male employees – including my superiors – talk about other women’s anatomy in front of me. My female friends told me of bosses telling them they had to sleep with them to get ahead. I myself encountered sexual harassment and was told that if I complained, I’d never work in the industry again. This isn’t gone, of course, but the #MeToo movement has changed the nature of the conversation – more people believe women and take complaints seriously. And just last week, President Joe Biden just signed a law outlawing forced arbitration agreements for sexual assault harassment incidents.
More men involved with parenting. While this isn’t directly about women, having more men involved in parenting not only means that there’s more help for women in the workforce, but it means that more bosses understand some of the pressures on mothers. Ideally, it means they’ll be more sympathetic and develop more parent-friendly policies and atmospheres.
What hasn’t changed?
Lack of affordable quality child care and pre-school. Let’s be clear: one of the most significant barriers for women getting ahead in business and employment is the lack of good, affordable child care. My nephew and his wife in Colorado pay $2,000 a month for child care for two children for three days a week! While statistics vary, especially by state, the average cost of child care for one child averages nearly $10,000 a year. This keeps women out of the work force and reduces their ability to build successful businesses. The United States spends less on child care than virtually any other developed nation. It’s time for government-subsidized child care and pre-school.
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Lack of paid maternity leave. I am fortunate to have a business in California, one of only eight states that have any paid maternity leave. When my chief operations manager got pregnant, she was able to take off a few months paid by the state. This enabled me to retain a key employee and for her to keep her job.
Lack of access to venture capital. Women-founded businesses receive just 2% of venture capital funding, a number virtually unchanged in over 20 years. Venture capital is an “old-boys” network, and women-led startups are held to far different standards than those founded by males.
Men still interrupt women when they’re speaking. Years ago, a study pointed out that men interrupt women far more frequently than women interrupt men. A recent study of the dynamics of the Supreme Court showed this was true even when females had more power than males. Male lawyers interrupted female Supreme Court justices – who have the power to affect their cases – far more frequently than interrupting male justices.
Women still downplay their strengths. A woman tooting her own horn is seen as egotistical, a man is seen as just conveying information. It’s far harder for a woman to share her accomplishments – with a potential customer, a funder, an employee – than a man.
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What’s gotten worse?
Ageism. With social media, Zoom, and the celebration of young entrepreneurs, there is more pressure than ever to look – and be – young and beautiful. A few years ago, I met a friend for lunch at the huge Silicon Valley company where he worked. As we sat in one of the dozens of company cafeterias, serving free gourmet lunches, I said to him, “Look around, of the 100 or so people here, I’m one of only three women.” His response: “And we’re the only two people over 40.” He was right.
“Bro” culture. In the past decade, the U.S. business community has celebrated young male entrepreneurs who have a brash, cocky, “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s no surprise that Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things” – a sentiment never, ever shared by any mother.
Gig work. The gig economy takes advantage of those who need flexibility the most – often women with child care responsibilities. But these jobs come with no benefits, high costs (workers typically have to provide their own cars, supplies), lousy working conditions, no worker safety and, typically, lousy pay. Our society needs to find a better structure to offer flexible work times with greater worker protections and better pay.
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