Right now, you can hear this rallying cry echo round offices and institutions across the UK. And that’s a great thing. But increasingly, when I hear this particular Bat-Signal go off, I’m left wondering: which women, exactly?
Last week, the Federation of Small Business (FSB) published a report, Supporting Women’s Enterprise in the UK: The Economic Case, and held a dinner hosted by Facebook (and, in particular, its always-impressive European VP, Nicola Mendelsohn), which was also celebrating the third year of its #SheMeansBusiness campaign. Both were asking the same important question: how do we produce more female entrepreneurs? Especially as the report found that women-owned and women-led businesses now contribute a total of £221bn representing 13.3% GVA to the UK economy. And, yet, despite the UK being seen as one of the best places in the world to start a business, women are half as likely as men to do so. As we collectively sink aboard the HMS Brexit Disaster, we need to find ways to unlock women’s labour and skills.
Around a candlelit table, over dinner and wine, female journalists (myself included), business owners, representatives of FSB and Margot James, minister for digital, culture, media and sport, tried to answer this question as intelligently and earnestly as we could. The conversation kept returning to schools and STEM, and persuading girls to carry on with economics and maths. The term “role models” was used a lot. I agree with all of this wholeheartedly.
But to start a business surely involves an element of financial risk, as well as emotional – a leap into the unknown. To take that leap, I imagine, comes from one of two places: either you have nothing to lose, or you have some semblance of stability in your life.
I grew up somewhere in the middle of those two things. In my single-parent family, Mum worked full-time, paid for childcare and received no maintenance from my father. We didn’t have “nothing to lose”, but my mum did have to count every penny she had. She was cautious; she made my school dresses, she walked instead of taking the bus. Somewhere, in my mind, this caution stuck. And, while I had stability in terms of love and food and clothes and never felt I ever wanted for anything, I saw a single mother struggle to keep everything balanced. So, how do you take a risk? How do you leap into the dark, when you feel like you’re just about keeping the lights on?
I saw a single mother struggle to keep everything balanced. So, how do you take a risk? How do you leap into the dark, when you feel like you’re just about keeping the lights on?
I’m very happy to ask how we can help all women make this leap. Equality is a chain; (mostly) empowered women empower women. But how do we also take single parents, women on low incomes or women on zero-contract hours, for example, the most precarious form of employment, and equip them to become entrepreneurs – not least because running a family on unpredictable, unreliable hours is a hell of a skill set, especially if there’s no one to tag team with.
We start, at the very least, by including those women in these conversations. We make sure that when we talk about inspiring women and encouraging success and female entrepreneurship, we mean all women. New conditionality requirements to receive Universal Credit will, the charity Gingerbread and ministers believe, impact mostly on lone parents – 91% of lone parents with dependent children are women. Are we thinking of these women, too? How do we start to unpack this? How do we level the playing field?
And while we must offer young women role models, the permission to be ambitious, and to believe some subjects aren’t off limits just because they are girls or due to where they were born or what school they went to, we must also offer them robust financial education. If you do come from a place of caution or you grew up in a household where money was scarce, it doesn’t have to be hereditary, but women must have the confidence to believe they can take control of money; that money isn’t a demon controlling them. This starts with education.
Of course, many single parents and women on low incomes start their own businesses (or even win the Booker or become JK Rowling). Income status has zero influence on creativity and smart ideas and hard, hard work. But it does, however, undoubtedly go some way to defining how easy it is to turn those things into a business, and just how high the stakes are. If we want more women entrepreneurs, let’s start by making sure we’re talking to all women.