In praise of gender-specific support...

You may have seen an article in Forbes recently, discussing recent research from Harrison, Leitch & McAdam which drew the conclusion that not only do women-only networks not equal the playing field in assisting women start and grow businesses at the same rate as men, but in fact can sometimes make it worse.

Being a female entrepreneur and someone who talks on a regular basis with hundreds of women facing barriers in their businesses, this conclusion intrigued me, even more so after having met Claire Leitch a few weeks ago at a Female Entrepreneurship conference which connected industry and academics. The research looked at a range of initiatives in Northern Ireland, and what jumped out immediately was the sheer number, all different but similar, using the same, and different instruments, some aimed at start ups, others aimed at VC funding, a very disjointed, very familiar and sad story.

As part of the discussions around the need for a National Women’s Business Centre, we identified that one of the biggest problems we see with public sector lead targeted initiatives is that there is a failure to collate, record and measure the short term and long term impact of these initiatives. the result of this is that every two years or so, a new initiative is set up by another publicly funded organisation to “invent” the wheel to fix women’s enterprise, and that frequently this is done without any consideration of how this new initiative fits in, follows on, complements, contradicts, duplicates or fills the gaps of other initiatives. Such projects usually have limited funding and a limited lifespan, and there is no succession plan. So, inevitably a year or so after one particular initiative ends, another one starts all over again.

The Harrison, Leitch & McAdam research highlights once again that alot of business structures are shaped for men, and that even women entrepreneurs themselves have a sense of battling the tide of entrepreneurship as a male domain. So how do we fix this? If entrepreneurship is deemed to be a male shaped environment, and many gendered support programmes fail to make a (male shaped) impact – what do we do?

One phrase that comes up regularly in discussions about gender based business support is that of “fixing the woman” to facilitate women to operate better in the male shaped world of entrepreneurship. I think that one thing all female entrepreneurs would acknowledge is that we don’t want fixing. The fact is that the way that we work, and grow our businesses does not fit well with the traditionally male created environment, that of the alpha male, the longer hours, where loud confidence trumps knowledge, and the yes the inevitable early morning or evening networking events.

Recently, a colleague of mine spoke at a Federation of Small Businesses organised event for women entrepreneurs as part of York Business Week and she had to point out to the organisers that organising this event between 2pm and 4pm on a weekday meant that very few of their target audience would be able to attend. This is a classic example of why these “gendered niche” support programmes fail. And if basic errors like this are made by organisations with such a wide membership as the FSB, is it any surprise that Women Entrepreneurship initiatives fail when they are established and their remit set by people who have never experienced starting and growing a business as a female entrepreneur?

The “fixing the woman” solution to gendered support pretends that none of these societal issues exist. No, most women can’t (or probably more accurately won’t) make a 6am breakfast networking event. And that’s good – although not often seen as such.

In most countries worldwide, it is not news that women are still the primary carers for family, and take on an average 50% more of the unpaid work/care burden in the household (even those without children). It is not correct to blame the women for not readjusting their lives to make it possible for them to attend these early morning meetings. Instead the business world needs to understand that by holding those meetings at 6am, they are excluding many women, and yes indeed many men too, and that they are choosing to deliberately exclude talent that can improve their businesses and their networks.

It is absolutely essential that all organisations collect and record gender disaggregated data, and that such data is centrally held and available to all public agencies. Improving participation of women in entrepreneurship isn’t something that an enterprise agency is going to fix with a “women only” programme on empowerment, it's something that will be addressed long term with the same instruments and methodology that will also address the gender pay gap, the unpaid work burden, and the second shift.

But until the male shaped world of entrepreneurship decides to voluntarily shift its shape, to be more inclusive for women, people of colour, male primary carers, older people etc, then we work in an imperfect world, and in that imperfect world, there is a role for gender targeted support. This doesn't mean male shaped networks or projects with the word “woman” stamped on them but targeted support – organised at the right times of day, in the right locations, with the starting premise that it's not the woman that needs fixing, it’s the system – and the people best placed to do that – are women.

Sandra Patterson is the founder of Kids Bee Happy and a WES Ambassador

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