Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Women's Enterprise Day 2008 *

Today is Women's Enterprise Day as part of Global Enterprise Week and I have been reading with great interest a post on the UK Business forums about women-only business initiatives. Do we need them, do women like them and do they make a difference?

I am torn on this debate.

A couple of weeks ago Maria Eagle (Labour MP for Liverpool) said in Parliament that "Women are the largest under represented group in terms of participation in enterprise and offer a wealth of untapped talent and economic opportunity."
Really? Less represented than the disabled? Than the over 50's or the under 21's? Aren't we just getting in a flap about nothing here?

Last year I counted the proportion of male and female professionals invited to speak / present / exhibit at three of the high profile conferences I attended, I am aware that this is far from a scientifically valid method but interesting anecdotally nonetheless:

Conference 1: 40 men to 6 women,
Conference 2: 31 men to 11 women,
Conference 3: 39 men to 9 women,

26 females out of 136 business professionals translates to just 19%, which isn't all that surprising given that the 2008 Annual Small Business Survey established that only 14% of UK businesses are women-owned. All of which paints a bleak picture of Women's Enterprise and whilst previously I would have been the first and loudest person protesting that 99% of behavior labeled as 'sexism' in the business community was brought about by attributional bias on the part of women. (Indeed, some of you may have heard me discussing this last year on BBC radio!) As my career has progressed I have undoubtedly experienced situations where I was overlooked, ignored or patronised for no other discernible reason than my gender.

So is there anything to be done about it?
Well, Women's Enterprise, to me, like Youth Led Enterprises and a host of other so termed 'minority' groups, needs work. There are quite simply more middle class, middle aged, white male owned businesses than anything else in this country but there is nothing empowering about telling women (or any other aforementioned group for that matter) that they *should* redress this balance. Pushing for a 50% male / female split in business ownership is like pushing for an 50% attendance rate at University. It will almost certainly capture some hidden talent but runs the risk of funneling people into a career situation which might not suit them as well as the alternatives. Women and men have, as a generalisation, different skill sets and as it is important to have a range of skills in any team. For this reason I find women-only initiatives off putting. This is not to say I don't enjoy the opportunity to attend a women's networking event once or twice a year, but that I genuinely enjoy the range of perspectives I get working with a diverse group of people.

It makes sense for the economy to ensure that anyone who wants to start up in business should have support, training and funding available to assist them. It makes no sense to dictate that by necessity equal number of males / females should want to make that career decision. It's all about free choice.

I am very lucky to have amongst my friends a number of amazing women who's successes are a source of constant inspiration to me. Some of these are fellow "Girls! Make Your Mark" ambassadors and actively spend their time inspiring others to achieve, putting themselves out there as examples of what can be done with a lot of hard work and a bit of determination. If you want to know what Women's Enterprise Day is really about look to them. Not facts, stats and figures.

*Alternative title "Amanda gets on her soapbox!"

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