According to the Office for National Statistics, between October and December 2014, 77,000 more women chose to become their own boss than during the same period in 2013: a rise of 5.6%. On the other hand, the number of male entrepreneurs over the same period rose by just 0.1%.
Almost half (45%) of all SMEs are now majority or equally-led by women and between 2006 and 2010 female-led SMEs accounted for £50bn of UK economic output. To get to the bottom of this trend we had in-depth conversations with over 35 senior female leaders and diversity experts to understand what has enabled thousands of women to thrive outside of conventional large-scale organisational structures.
Company culture is key to enabling career progression
The successful women we interviewed felt that it’s vital to have the right company culture in the first place in order to facilitate career progression for either gender. For example, Jacey Graham, Director of Brook Graham, told us that she felt established businesses tend to have competitive and transactional structures which are not conducive to the success of women who are generally more collaborative, valuing strong networks rather than hierarchy.
Many of the women we spoke with said that they want a culture where they feel empowered, not only to take charge of their own day, work schedule and results, but also to be able to help colleagues succeed. This support for others in turn boosts their own self-esteem.
We also found that the women-owned businesses we reviewed were generally more open to a flexible working culture, particularly when it comes to hiring working mothers into senior part-time roles. It shouldn’t matter why someone is working flexibly; what matters is the type of job they do and the results they achieve. Women ultimately want genuine, judgement-free flexibility where all employees, male and female, can work in a manner that fits their lifestyle.
Failure is often the best training experience
Liz Jackson, Managing Director at Great Guns Marketing, aptly describes failure as “probably the best training and character-building experience you’ll ever get.” Women-owned businesses were seen by many of our research participants as having a better attitude to failure than established organisations.
By contrast, one of our interviewees pointed out that while a big company might superficially encourage their staff to make mistakes, in reality people feel that if they try something big then fail, then they might as well leave. Women-owned organisations tend to be better at recognising that new ideas cannot be proven successful unless they are allowed to fail.
Coaching and mentoring programmes can nurture careers
Many of the women we spoke to list having a mentor as one of the top three enablers of success, allowing them to be open about their personal challenges with somebody with more experience. Similarly, coaching is a great development tool and provides invaluable resource for women to review their career ambitions and to identify barriers and potential next steps.
Many research participants suggested that pastoral support is more actively promoted within women-owned businesses than established companies. In these environments there is a recognition that everybody benefits from receiving advice from those who have gone before them, and that many have career ambitions beyond merely advancing in their current role.
What the research showed most strongly was that women need ‘real models’ as opposed to just role models. Women benefit from examples who are accessible and understandable to their careers and experiences, and illustrate the challenges they faced and the support they received to get to where they are.
The persistent scarcity of women along large organisation’s leadership ladders can leave some women without any direct and relatable models. These ‘real modes’ are much easier to engage with in smaller, women-owned businesses.
For centuries, modern businesses have been developed by and for male leadership. Despite amazing steps that have been taken in the past 30 years to alter that course, it’s not a big surprise that women still find it difficult to fulfil their potential within these structures.
Organisations who want the benefits of engaged and motivated female talent should look to women-owned businesses to understand where they could be doing things better. If they don’t, then today’s colleagues could easily become tomorrow’s competitors as more talented women leave to start their own businesses.