At a time when entrepreneurship is growing three times faster among women than men, research reveals that women still earn 20 per cent less than their male counterparts, and that gap appears to be widening. This pay gap affects women throughout their working lives and beyond into retirement.
According to investment firm Fidelity, an income of £25,674 is needed to have a good standard of living in retirement, including an annual holiday, running a car and eating out occasionally. It’s estimated that this requires an average savings pot of £1,777,000.
If men are steadily earning more than women throughout their working lives, it’s more likely that they will achieve this goal and enjoy overall higher incomes than women in retirement. Meanwhile, women can be left feeling the financial repercussions of lower salaries long after they’ve stopped working.
So, is the rising number of female entrepreneurs a response to a workplace where women experience a glass ceiling, particularly if and when they become mothers? We spoke to two successful businesswomen to see how their experiences answer this question.
What are the factors which can make entrepreneurship more attractive to women than employment?
“I had had some tough employment situations as a mother,” says Ayesha Vardag, founder and president of law firm Vardags.
“One boss told me ‘there’s no f***ing maternity leave here’. When in a chat over lunch at another place I revealed I had children, the man who hired me admonished me: ‘Well that wasn’t on your CV!’ It was crystal clear that, despite my middle-aged male companions all happily discussing their children, the fact that I, as a woman, had some of my own diminished me in their eyes. Sure enough, later my boss there told me that they didn’t see how I was going to go to the top of my profession as a divorced mother with children.”
For other women, the chance to work flexibly, follow their creative business interests and a desire for freedom add to the lure of being your own boss.
“My situation now is a perfect example of the liberties that compelled me to become an entrepreneur in the first place,” says Emma Taylor, founder and managing director of technology community Nimbus Ninety. One month after the birth of her first daughter, she is able to work 20 hours a week from home.
“In truth though, I was always destined to be ‘the boss’,” Taylor continues. “When I was seven my mother joked that I had so much of Margaret Thatcher in me that our family trees must surely be intertwined in the non-too-distant past.”
How can being a woman or a mother limit opportunities in a conventional employee role?
For Vardag the answer is an emphatic yes: “Just being a mother put me, for some employers, into the realm of the also-rans.”
Taylor sees hurdles to mothers developing their careers more in terms that business models are lagging behind the societal evolution that has taken place in the last few decades. “The traditional, still overarching paradigms of the way we do business are anathema in many respects to the demands of motherhood. That’s because those paradigms was built as precisely the best way to operate when our roles in society were assigned in the womb.”
Can entrepreneurship allow women to sidestep the glass ceiling?
“I don’t think I’ve ‘side stepped’ the glass ceiling,” says Taylor. “Choosing entrepreneurship means losing out on both the benefits and drawbacks of a ladder. However, I believe that being an entrepreneur gives me an opportunity to help remove that glass ceiling for other women, both directly for my own employees and indirectly for others.
“Nimbus Ninety employs several working mothers. None of them work what can be deemed a regular shift pattern but it suits them and it suits my business. They are invaluable to me and I firmly believe in fitting businesses processes in around the people as opposed to the other way around.”
“Yes. If you build your own business you make your own rules and you stand on your own achievements,” says Vardag. “I became successful because I won some really big cases, proving myself to my end user market.
“And I was human, and empathetic, and poured my own passion and individuality into my work. I could take stands and be fearless and challenging because no-one grey and conservative and fearful was above me crushing out my creativity or pressing me to be more banal. And guess what – let a bright, creative woman do her own thing and you get record-breaking, law-making, life-changing results.”
How far are gender imbalances reflected when women become entrepreneurs?
This is a pressing question given that self-employed women earned 40 per cent less than their male counterparts in 2012. Patterns of learned behaviour that can hold women back in the workplace, such a difficulty negotiating salary or undervaluing their work, can translate into similar problems when self-employed.
“As perhaps the most expensive lawyer in London, I don’t think it has to be that way,” says Vardag. “I think women undervalue themselves when those with power around them, historically men, undervalue them. If you’re being told in a thousand tiny messages that you’re unimportant you start to adopt an apologetic air.”
“As an employee I, like the vast majority of women, witnessed first-hand the kind of casual sexism that is rife within the workplace, with varying levels of intent and consequence,” says Taylor. “However, it’s been a nearly a decade since I started running my business and I have never felt an ounce of sexism governing anything that I have done or that has influenced my work.”
Entrepreneurship clearly offers women a way to combine flexible working patterns once they have children, even if it does sometimes mean long hours, and an escape from sexist attitudes which penalise mothers in particular. But, just as with men, it’s also a response to ambition, creativity, business acumen and drive.
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