Less than twenty years ago the idea of a woman wanting to start her own business was borderline unfathomable - instead, they were limited to more traditional roles like teaching, nursing or secretarial work.
This professional oppression in years gone by is starkly reflected by business ownership statistics today. According to UK insolvency practitioners KSA Limited, only 1 in 8 SMEs are run by women (senior management comprised of at least 75% females).
It’s a truly appalling figure, and one which helps to shed light on an incredibly serious issue in both the business world and society. It also begs the question of how a landscape of such bias can be made equal.
Fast-forward to the present day and millennial women are tearing down the barriers to business and opportunity, whether that be through owning their own business or blurring the lines of traditional roles.
For example, women now earn three bachelor degrees for every two earned by men, and they are taking over financial jobs traditionally perceived to be male-dominated. There is a long way to go, of course, but this generation of young women are changing the business world and setting society on a much more prosperous path for the future.
To discuss further, we sat down with one of our own accountants, Flora Kennedy, to discuss why the current statistics regarding female-owned businesses tell such a discrimination-fuelled story, and what millennial women are doing to change it.
“I’m actually surprised it’s as many as 1 in 8. My guess would have been marginally lower. The perception of entrepreneurship between the genders is definitely different. I know that for me, in seeing a successful start-up (typically male-lead), my initial thought is almost always ‘I wish I was a man’, rather than what I assume much more men must think – ‘I could do that too’,” said Kennedy.
“Having said that, when I see a female lead business, I do think the latter. The problem is that this is less common. It’s a drawback in giving women the confidence to be an entrepreneur. If you don’t see people like yourself doing something, it’s very easy to not consider it or to believe you’re just not cut out for it,” she continued.
What Kennedy describes is a deep-rooted issue that shocks the confidence of many latent female entrepreneurs before they ever step into the business world. However, the poisonous flipside to this scenario is that when women do decide to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions it is misconstrued by traditional perceptions as being an unredeeming quality or personality.
Where men are heaped with praise for their ambition, women are seen as abnormal for doing the same.
“The traditional basis is competitiveness, assertiveness and confidence, to name a few. These traits typically come easier, or more commonly, to men in the business sense, although of course there is definitely no lack of women with these traits.
“The issue here arises in the treatment of the genders when the traits are displayed. That is, women can be seen as bitchy or vain for displaying confidence,” said Kennedy.
“A good example I can think of is when I watch The Apprentice. It’s noticeable the genders are viewed differently and interactions are not equal between them. Imagine this in the real world with no cameras - it’s still there,” she added.
One crucial thing to take from all of this is that the way a young woman feels in today’s world is something that can never be truly understood or empathised with unless you are a young woman, too.
“As a woman, I cannot help but be aware of the fact that I am definitely treated differently to a man, even in 2018. It definitely isn’t equal and although there’s improvement there is still a long way to go.
“Life as a woman can be daunting and even walking down a street when the sun has gone down can be a scary thought, so to have to step out and throw yourself into a male-dominated environment can be terrifying.
“Female authors notably have used pseudonyms or initials to hide their identity as women in hope of being picked up by publishers. Look no further than J.K. Rowling.
“The fact is that on these grounds, one can assume being a female entrepreneur is harder in a lot of senses. Potentially women might get less funding or support, simply by having a female name.
“From experience of being around bankers and other suited male professionals, sexist jokes are rampant. I always wonder that when they say things comfortably out loud, what they must be holding back? These are same men that women will have to deal with when they’re trying to succeed with a business,” said Kennedy.
“I also know that personally, I sometimes fear that people take me less seriously on hearing my voice. I am very sure that this is not uncommon. In the world of entrepreneurs it is very important to be taken seriously.
“Even the media looks at women not for what they do, what they have achieved, but what they are wearing. These barriers are held up and it’s difficult to see any way that they can be brought down. Being taken seriously, or fear of not being taken seriously, can be a factor in the reason there are less women SMEs,” she continued.
Despite the unimaginable challenges highlighted by Ms Kennedy, millennial women are changing the global landscape of business as we know it. With initiative, ambition and incredible courage, year by year, globally.
In 2017, a study led by Buzz MG revealed 83% of the 400 millennial women surveyed said they wanted to start their own business. A true testament to how the mindset of millennial women has grown in confidence with every new female-led business that’s created.
Further to that, a white paper released by the Dentsu Aegis Network found 86% of entrepreneurs in Vietnam are aged between 18 to 34. As a whole, female millennials in South East Asia are more likely to start a business than older generations and have launched twice as many businesses than baby boomers.
Economically, it shows that women have an active interest in business, and alienating them is a sure fire way to lose out on a profitable demographic.
Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce. They are also old enough for managerial and senior-level roles. This means that how millennials want to work will continue to influence business model trends in 2018.
With regards to the above, social media has been played a significant part in the rise of millennial women in business.
“An approach I see a lot of women taking nowadays is utilising social media platforms as a way to generate a following and in turn, a business. For example, Good Girl Gang – hand-made empowering apparel - uses the likes of Instagram to raise brand awareness and ultimately drive sales,” said Kennedy.
“There are so many different ways to put yourself out there, so to speak, effectively cutting out the middleman - quite literally. Social media, alternative routes of funding online, events and networking are changing the game.
“I think there will still be a societal and business gender divide for a while, but social media is definitely a tool that lessens the gap. Through social media you can instantly see legions of powerful women and entrepreneurs, celebrities using the platform for empowerment and support,” she added.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges for women in 2017 was getting investment firms to buy into their ideas. According to the Harvard Business Review, male-led 25% difference in the exits of female and male-led startups.
However, as soon as there are female VCs involved, the gap between the genders disappears. This is because women partners can relate to products designed to solve female problems and can guide those startups to success better than VCs solely led by men.
In the coming years it’s likely we will see more VCs investing in female partners, and as a result, more female-led businesses closing the gender gap and rebalancing the business world.
“That’s got to spur something, right?”, concluded Kennedy.