If the Women’s March in January taught us anything, it’s that women are willing to fight gender-based inequality and discrimination worldwide. Despite the huge strides women have made in business in general, many challenges remain.
The accelerated growth of women-owned businesses (WOB) between 2007 and 2016 is proof of the progress made. In that time, the number of WOBs increased 45% to more than 11.3 billion firms—a growth rate five times faster than the national average. In the same time period, the revenue of these firms increased 35% to more than $1.6 trillion. That revenue growth (supported by $1.9 trillion in annual sales) was 30% faster than the national average.
Women-owned businesses also increased employment by 18% since the recession, whereas the national average actually dropped by 1%. As of 2016, WOBs employed roughly 9 million people throughout the US, although some sources report the number may actually be higher at nearly 13 million or as many as 23 million.
The total economic impact of WOBs is $2.6 trillion, according to the National Women’s Business Council. Without these businesses contributing to the economy, unemployment would rise 16%.
In today’s post, we touch on some of the biggest challenges women business owners face along with suggestions about how to overcome them.
“Don’t be swayed by overnight success stories. Most entrepreneurs make it after years of hard work.” ~ Lavina Rodrigues, Pyra
A lot of unfair expectations are projected onto women, especially with regard to working. You’re probably familiar with the mild sounding “a woman’s place is in the home,” and this is a perspective that women have been fighting in the U.S. for more than a century. Of course, once a woman gets into the workplace, expectations are just as unfair: not being loud enough makes a woman easy to run over in meetings while being too bold makes a woman “too” aggressive, even if it’s the same behavior as her male counterparts.
How to Overcome
This is perhaps the hardest challenge to overcome because, as the adage says, the only way out is through. Be yourself, honor your own goals, and fight twice as hard as the men next to you to earn respect and defy expectations. You don’t need to become cold or act like one of the boys; instead, focus on taking the extra step to prove your value to investors and employees alike. A prime example is IBM’s first female CEO, Virginia Rometty. Despite taking over after disastrous mistakes by her predecessor and terrible markets globally, Rometty has defied expectations of her own personal failure for the company and has helped bring a huge advancement forward: Watson. The AI is reshaping the way other businesses do business (even H&R Block has tapped it for the 2017 tax season).
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
Securing Needed Capital
Traditionally speaking, investors—especially venture capitalists responsible for lifting many startups—want to put money back into “their own tribe.” That may mean alums from a favored alma mater, but it also means that men are more likely to invest in men. That leaves the burden on VC firms with female partners, which represent 6% of such firms in the US. That means that less than 3% of companies funded by venture capitalism have female CEOs. Similar disparities would hold back WOBs seeking other types of funding thanks to the discretionary discrimination of banks and other entities responsible for signing the checks.
How to Overcome
Thankfully, times are changing. In the 1980s, federal law H.R. 5050 (colloquially, the Women’s Business Ownership Act) legally codified support and resources to help WOBs find funding and continue to grow. It also abolished harmful laws on the state level that undermined women’s leadership, including those that required the signature of a male relative for women seeking business loans. What’s more, not only is the availability of women-focused investment improving—just review the breakdown of which top 100 venture firms have the best percentage of women partners—but new, creative avenues are fast becoming available to help women business owners at all stages.
If you’re having difficulty finding funding, consider options like peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding, or microlending. There are also government grants available as well as other aid if you become a certified women-owned-business. Successful entrepreneurs, like VenueBook’s Kelsey Recht, also understand that you need to customize your plan and pitch to best connect with investors and share your vision.
“Women investors are twice likely to invest in women in business.” ~ Som Singh, angel investor
Work-life balance is critical for a healthy life and healthy relationships, no matter your gender or profession, but for a woman who is also an entrepreneur, this can be significantly harder to manage. For one thing, women often have to work harder for much longer to achieve the same recognition as their male counterparts, meaning they’re much more likely to neglect their personal needs. This becomes more complicated if raising a family is something they want. About 95% of female small business owners are moms, and even Millennials, who prefer equal parenting time between each partner, find it difficult to break free of traditional work-parenting structures once children actually become part of the picture. That leaves most of the pressure on moms to build a business while building a stable home for their children and making the necessary time to meet kids’ needs (e.g., having dinner, ensuring homework gets done, getting to extracurriculars, putting them to bed). That leaves even less time for the mompreneur to ensure her own mental health.
How to Overcome
There are a variety of ways to discover the best balance for you, and no plan for work-life balance is going to be one-size-fits-all. Remember that you can’t (and shouldn’t!) do it all, and thus need to take advantage of delegating, whether it’s at the office or at home. That means understanding the priorities you have in each area and tapping your support structure, including your spouse.
It helps if your approach at the office can be inspired by life at home, but if you work from home, building definitive office hours can be critical. Be ready and able to turn your phone off and step away from 24/7 contact that technology enables. Take Nicole Neves, former Director of PR for Guess and founder of PR brand Sequin Productions, as a key example. The move to entrepreneurship actually improved her work-life balance, but it’s still a delicate balance that relies on a supportive husband, embracing every moment as it comes and learning to say no.
“Looking back at the times where I allowed my work to create stress and frustration in my life, I now realize what I thought was important really was not. I am not saying you should not take your work seriously; what I am saying is that we need to realize that life is all about balance.” ~ Catherine Pulsifer, author
Networking and Professional Connections
Unfortunately, the old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is all too true with regard to certain levels of business networking and connections. It can be difficult for new entrepreneurs to break into these tight-knit circles, especially if they’re women. Yet these networks are critical for business owners to learn the ins and outs of an industry, especially in a particular region, and can be even more important for landing contracts. It’s even tougher in industries that are not only male-dominated (as with most businesses) but that are male-oriented (e.g., construction).
How to Overcome
On the one hand, women business owners will have to work harder to prove themselves within their industry and fight hard to gain the recognition they deserve. Part of this will include owning their own accomplishments; women are constantly put in the position of being the team players, and that results in using the word “we” to discuss success more often than it should be.
Owning your accomplishments will help express the power and confidence you have in your business and convey the value of including you in a network. However, one of the most important things you can do is tap into networking events that are specifically geared toward women, such as the She Leads conference and the Women’s International Networking conferences and preferred leadership forums. There’s also online networking forums, like Ellevate’s Global Professional Women’s Network.
“Networking isn’t just an art, it’s hard work. But remember, every contact you build makes it easier for you to compete.” ~ Tina Garg, Pink Lemonade
Lack of Mentors
The same issues present with funding challenges are also present when it comes to women entrepreneurs finding mentors. Quite simply, the number of women who have built a role for themselves that gives them the opportunity to mentor others is small—48% of female founders cite a lack of mentorship as a limitation on their professional growth. Mentoring under a man isn’t impossible, of course, but it often subjects women entrepreneurs to more of the same biases they face in the office and doesn’t offer insight into overcoming the unique challenges facing women the way being mentored by a woman might.
How to Overcome
The biggest factor is going to be being proactive about finding and even creating both short-term and learning opportunities. Find the entrepreneurs you admire and do your homework. At the very least you can observe their past successes and failures, and if you can make contact, even if they’re not able to mentor you, they can probably point you in the right direction.
Don’t be afraid to shadow people who possess skills you want to learn. And as with networking, there are organizations devoted to helping women connect with those that can improve their success. Organizations like BusinessAdvice.org and SCORE are dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with the best mentors. The Association of Women’s Business Centers and the National Association of Women Business Owners are founded for this purpose and can help provide a host of other resources, as well.
“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” ~ Coco Chanel
Lack of Confidence
It’s an unfortunate truth that time women speak in collaborative work settings amounts to less than 75% of the speaking time that men have, and it’s thanks to little more than social conditioning. Men are encouraged toward confident and assertive behavior, even when it isn’t earned, while women are encouraged to stay quiet and be led. It’s a mold that must be broken for women entrepreneurs to build their vision.
The effects of timidity extend beyond the typical office setting. Lack of confidence can become a fear which inevitably leads to risk aversion and entrepreneurship, by its very nature, is risky. Risk aversion and faulty confidence can have devastating impacts on how well your venture pitch is received.
How to Overcome
There’s only one way to overcome this particular hurdle and that’s learning to speak up. Audre Lorde speaks to this best, although it’s born as much from being a civil rights activist as it does from being a feminist: essentially, you must push yourself, and when the world doesn’t end despite the people trying to put you down and make you be quiet, you must push yourself a little further still because you must fall in love with your own vision.
In terms of business, even Melinda Gates recognizes that women finding their voice can be incredibly difficult, but is necessary to being a strong woman and a strong leader.
Although you need to balance the use of good advice against forging your own path, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t constantly compare your success to that of others, especially men. That only serves to distract you from your real goals and undermines your path to success.
“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” ~ Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx
The challenges of women business owners are doubly difficult to deal with because they uniquely straddle the line between professional prowess and gender discrimination and inequality. Gone are the days when women could be dismissed as the weaker sex; female business owners are proving themselves to be fierce entrepreneurs by overcoming each obstacle.
Recognize Your Career Challenges and Overcome Them!
- Remember, the only way to overcome challenges is to face them head-on by identifying them and proactively knuckling down to approach each with a can-do attitude.
- Review our list to discover whether any of these issues apply to your career and begin developing a strategy to overcome them.
- If you don’t already have a mentor, consider finding one or developing a support group your place to start. This can be critical to helping you stay motivated, stay positive, and find other connections and resources to help you succeed.
- Take advantage of every resource available to you. In addition to the resources we’ve listed above, take advantage of the US Small Business Administration has an Office of Women’s Business Ownership intended to provide education, advocacy, and outreach.