Stepping Out from Under the Glass Ceiling
by Amelia // 6 March 2011, 11:54
A recent Guardian article on a survey confirming the existence of the glass ceiling at work provoked 205 comments. These centred around the common themes of selfish harpy women, credible and trustworthy men and derogatory references to women's choice to have children instead of a career. Nothing new there then. However, it also contained this information:
The findings, which came from an even sample of men and women with an average age of 43, also revealed that 24% of women under 30 expected to start their own businesses within 10 years, compared with 20% of men.
Penny de Valk, the institute's chief executive, said the pressure on many women to combine childcare with career aspirations was "part of the cocktail". If large organisations wanted to nurture the talent of their best female employees, they needed to start challenging some of the unwritten rules of what senior management roles looked like.
"It's not that women are risk-averse; younger women in particular are incredibly ambitious around entrepreneurial activity. Yet we can see that a promotion path within a large organisation is almost seen as riskier for them, on a personal basis, than going out and setting up their own venture," she said.
I am an entrepreneur. When I was 22 and a male friend said, "Haven't you ever thought of running your own business?" my answer was a shocked, "No!" But then I went to Japan, where self-employed English teachers have a much better time of it than employed English teachers. I began noticing business opportunities and, as a 25-year-old graduate with no interest in a traditional career path whatsoever, started developing ideas into a fully fledged business of my own.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, but it is one way of levelling the playing field. Or, more accurately, stomping off the playing field where cheating is rife and the ref is blind and making our own. The way I see it, I'm creating a workplace that will give me freedom, independence and stability throughout my life. Employment cannot offer any of these things, because control of my time and income will always lie with somebody else. What it does offer it will withdraw as soon as I have children, am disabled, or seen as old.
Entrepreneurship is not a noble choice for special snowflakes, and I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to work in the system despite knowing the challenges they face. However, I do think that refusing to engage with those unfair standards by starting your own business can be an equally feminist act.
Women as a group tend to face challenges such as lacking confidence, struggling to balance family and work and gaining respect when trying to make sales or raise funding. Specifically, of course, some or all of these challenges just don't apply to many women. My own biggest challenges have been:
- A lack of business knowledge, qualifications or experience in my chosen field, overcome by educating myself with library books and bluffing through the rest.
- Bizarrely, considering the above, overconfidence. I overcame this only by a humbling financial meltdown when my assumptions and expectations proved unrealistic.
- Unsurprisingly, considering the above, an appalling credit score. This effectively keeps me from any loans whatsoever, but I've overcome that by designing a business model that can be run by one person on evenings and weekends. This allows me to build it up on top of a full time job, without taking the risks that led to the initial meltdown.
However, my perspective is of course influenced by my privilege as a graduate who has been able to find at least some employment, who lives with a partner who has covered short-term rent arrears and food bills when need be. Other feminist entrepreneurs, what specific challenges have you faced in starting a business, and how have you overcome them? To would-be entrepreneurs, or people who've never really considered it before, what obstacles do you think would keep/are keeping you back? (Please remember that I don't consider entrepreneurship the righteous destiny of every feminist, and do consider "I'd actually just rather not, thanks" as a perfectly valid response!)
Picture by Jorge Balarezo, shared on a Creative Commons licence.