Feminism The Rise of the Female Entrepreneur

As International Women’s Day 2019 approaches, there’s a feeling of excitement – almost like we’ve turned a corner and the future is bright. Sure, it’s not all sunshine and roses, but there’s something powerful in the air.

Over the past year at ShireWomen we’ve seen more and more female entrepreneurs join our community. According to the Department of Industry, over the past 20 years, there has been a 46% rise in female owned and operated businesses in Australia, and of all businesses operating in Australia today, 40% of them are owned by women. These are surprising statistics for most people, so I asked some of our members about why they became entrepreneurs. Three reasons were consistently vocalised: Flexibility, hitting the glass ceiling and pay discrimination.

Some of you may be sick of hearing about the gender pay gap, but it is most definitely a contributing factor in the rise of the female entrepreneur. I know many of you who haven’t experienced this gap yourselves or practiced it in your own business firmly believe it isn’t an issue, because perhaps it isn’t in your world. But sadly, for many women it is. I decided to delve into a bit of the history of the gender pay gap and how in turn it has influenced how women in Australia feel about business.

It may interest some of you to learn that Australia has had legislation in place since 1996 making it illegal to pay someone less for the same work because of their gender (The Workplace Relations Act 1996). It is also mentioned in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984. Despite this, many businesses have serious issues making this best practice in their workplace. There are many reasons for that – it’s in the too hard basket, or bringing women’s pays up to the same level as the men would mean less profit, and let’s not forget intrenched attitudes towards women in general that box us into “traditional” roles.

I’d like to share a different perspective on the gender pay gap as I’ve experienced it – from a HR perspective trying to bring thousands of people’s pay into line with each other.

Back when I lived in the UK, during 1999 – 2003 I worked in the HR Department for my local government and was part of a parliament enacted initiative called Single Status. This initiative was brought about to ensure the Equal Pay Act 1970 was being adhered to in government departments, as there were reports that women were being paid less than men within local Councils, Hospitals, the Ambulance Services, Police and Intelligence Services (yes you read that right – this law was enacted in 1970 and here I was 30 years later working on enforcing it).

While I am pleased to say that of the thousands of people’s pay I analysed, 2/3’s of women were on pretty equal pay - the remaining 1/3 of women’s pay was drastically different. I mean thousands and thousands of pounds per month different. I was shocked at the disparity as I grew up in a very egalitarian city and not once had I ever experienced direct gender discrimination in the workplace. I felt strongly that it couldn’t be true.

The reality was that it was really underhand and carefully planned - it was all conducted hush-hush behind the scenes with handshakes in the pub, and the women who were being discriminated against had no clue. I would receive phone calls from them asking me if I’d calculated their pay wrong because their pay went up thousands of pounds in one month. They were confused as to why they were owed thousands upon thousands of pounds in back pay. The elation of more money in their pocket was swiftly replaced with the realisation that they had been duped for their entire working life and no-one had done anything to that point. No-one.

Respect for their managers was all of a sudden replaced with resentment and a feeling of disbelief and vulnerability. How could this happen in such an egalitarian city? Who knew about it? How is it possible to break the law for 30 YEARS with no-one saying anything? How?

The media made a frenzy of it, and the government called for all businesses over a certain size to submit their pay data and get every person onto a Single Status program. The result was that many women were so disgusted they started to go out on their own. If they controlled their own business, no-one could pull the wool over their eyes again.

When I started working in HR in Australia, while I found the gender pay gap was indeed an issue here too, I noticed there were very few women even working in Corporate Australia, and flexibility was often given as a reason why. Women had to formally ask (and still do) for flexible working arrangements if they needed it. Everyone watched as they did the walk of shame across the office to pick their kids up from school. This was a bit foreign to me as I had seen positive results when flexible working is offered to everyone in the workplace. Flexible working benefits both women AND men in equal proportions, but lack of it tends to disproportionately affect women, especially in the Corporate world.

I began to air my frustrations with my boss and the CEO of the business I worked in, suggesting we implement flexible working arrangements for everyone. I was told to stay in my place. I couldn’t believe it. I started working in SME’s thinking perhaps they might be less discriminatory. I was wrong. Where flexibility in SME’s was much more accepted for those women who needed it, it was rare for a woman to be working in an SME in any role other than an Admin role. With the knowledge that women in Australia are more highly educated than men (57% of all graduates from Australian Universities are women), I just couldn’t reconcile it. It made no sense.

I talked to other women who had started their own business to find out why they went out alone. Many of them said they were sick of going for promotions and not getting them, and watching more junior male colleagues get the job. These were women who didn't even have kids - so the "maternity leave" excuse was invalid. Enough was enough.

Years have passed since my personal experience, and while progression is being made in the workplace, it’s been slower than what most women would like.

Enter the rise of the female entrepreneur!

In the past year, at ShireWomen we have seen more and more women take control of their future and start their own businesses. It’s like they’ve hit the limit of tolerance, and rather than fight so hard for such small incremental changes they’ve said “enough is enough” and gone out alone.

We have also seen more women in leadership roles in corporates and it’s nothing short of empowering! For those women who have taken the leap into entrepreneurship or leadership, ShireWomen is here to support, empower and educate them along the way.

Which leads me to International Women’s Day.

We feel it’s important to champion women who’ve done the hard yards and despite all adversity, have made it in business. Being a business owner isn’t easy, and therefore coming together and celebrating our achievements is inspirational and empowering.

This International Women’s Day we’ll be supporting our ShireWomen Business Members Sullivan Dewing in their 10th Year of Celebrating Women in Business Lunch with Guest Speaker Michelle Bridges. Now up to almost 300 attendees, it shows just how far women in the Sutherland Shire have come in business. We would love to see you all there – information and tickets are available by clicking here.

And if you’re a woman in business and would like to get in touch with us - click here to shoot us and email.

If you'd like to attend one of monthly networking and educational events click here. We'd love to meet you!