In 1986, armed with no more than #40 a week from a government Enterprise Allowance scheme, Liz Dorgue went about setting up her own recruitment business.
She was 47 years old and had no experience of working for herself. The fact that she was a woman, her inexperience of being her own boss, even her height – 4ft 10in – made many disregard her. ‘It was tough. I found it very difficult to be accepted,’ she says.
Difficult, but not impossible.
Fifteen years later, her company, Liz Dorgue Staffing, has a turnover of #8.9m and 22 staff. There are offices spread across the North East, not only in Darlington where it all started, but also York, Harrogate and Sunderland.
The success of Dorgue, and thousands like her across the UK, is part of a wider social phenomenon taking place in the British workplace. Figures just published by Barclays show she is a member of an ever-burgeoning minority – women entrepreneurs.
Since 1997 their number has leapt dramatically. Barclays’ research, published earlier this month, shows women are now responsible for a third of all start-ups, an increase of 22% in just the last four years. Over half were in the retail, leisure and personal services sectors.
And recessions and the burst of the dotcom bubble withstanding, this number seems likely to rise. As many as 90% of women and men feel cultural changes in the recent past make it ever easier to start their own businesses.
Presently, women own a third of all businesses, with a turnover of up to #1m.
As well as the headline figure, the report, Women in Business – The Barriers Start to Fall, also reveals differences in the way the sexes work when establishing a new business.
Women are more adventurous when starting up. Around 45% choose a different business from one they’d be been in before, as opposed to only 28% of men.
They place greater emphasis on organisational skills; work less hours as a boss – only 35% work over 60 hours a week compared to 61% of men.
And only 3% felt becoming a boss would improve their image. Testosterone meant 23% of men cited that as the main advantage for setting up a new business. ‘The number of female entrepreneurs is increasing significantly and our research reveals they are often more adventurous than men when starting their own business,’ says Niccola Swan, director of equality and diversity at Barclays.
Patricia Hewitt, the minister for small businesses and e-commerce who herself is part of a ‘business’ where only five of the ‘board’ members are female, claims ‘very real progress’ is being made by women in the corporate world.
Barclays’ findings will be backed by further figures published later this month by BDO Stoy Hayward.
Looking into the issue of female entrepreneurs, the survey will show in sectors such as media, marketing and sales their numbers and influence is increasing.
It will also show women regard themselves as more caring, rational bosses, better at managing people than their male counterparts who they see as coldhearted and more ruthless.
The picture being painted by the research is one of an ever-rosier workplace increasingly devoid of age-old prejudices about what women can and should do.
And accountancy too has not been without its successful female entrepreneurs.
‘I have never experienced discrimination from employers, perspective employers, clients or anything like that,’ says Danielle Stewart, a founder and partner in Warrener Stewart.
In 1988, aged 27, Stewart set up the London practice. In its first year it had a turnover of #70,000. Today, that figure has reached #1m. Her profile and influence has also grown. She is the vice-chair of the Auditing Practices Board and sits on the Accounting Standards Board small companies working party. The only prejudice she says she encountered was for being too young – something the 39-year-old no longer worries about.
In Hexham, Northumberland, Patricia Arnold has run her own practice, Patricia J Arnold & Co, for the past 15 years. She started with three clients. She now has 300.
She too says she encountered few problems starting up because of her sex. ‘I set up by myself. I didn’t find it difficult (as a woman) to get started. I actually think there are great advantages in being the odd one out,’ she says.
This is all very positive. But scratch the surface and the picture might not seem quite so bright after all. The headline figure from Barclays’ research may have been about the increasing number of start-ups now being established by women. But it also found traditional problems have remained a factor for many women at work.
Discrimination is still a reality for most, with one in four women entrepreneurs experiencing sexual discrimination in the last five years. Thirty seven percent of women were worried that they were not being taken seriously.
A further conclusion was that the ‘new man’ may have been a staple of lifestyle magazine articles for the past few years but, in reality, he was hard to find. Eighty percent of female owner-managers are responsible for looking after children or arranging childcare. The figure for men was 17%, reported Barclays.
One reason why many women start up on their own is because of a lack of opportunity within accountancy firms. Figures from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales show of the 20,979 partners in practice, only 1,477 were women.
‘It is changing but I think the changes are slow,’ admits Anne Jenkins, formerly president of Women in Accountancy.
Tax consultant Anita Monteith, who has been self-employed since 1993, is equally sceptical. ‘If you want to look behind these particular statistics you should be expecting more start ups to be started by women. Why is it only a third?’ she asks.
A question not easily answered.
Glenda Stone, founder of the website Busygirl, Britain’s first business ‘technology portal’ for women entrepreneurs, questions the importance of the start-up figure of a third uncovered by Barclays. ‘All around the world it has been a third for quite some time. It is always that figure.
Why?,’ asks Stone who also advises PricewaterhouseCoopers on issues involving women entrepreneurs.
She says the UK lags behind the USA in the area of female start-ups.
This may not be surprising but there is another crucial difference, she argues. The value of individual companies set up in the States will be much higher than their British counterparts. Stone argues a real breakthrough will occur when the value of companies run by women increases.
She cites an event called ‘Springboard’ held in the USA for women entrepreneurs to attract backing last October that raised $210m (#142.5m) from venture capitalists.
Stone believes age-old issues such as maternity leave and a traditionally male working culture explain why more women do not set up their own practices.
Certainly, the issue of raising children is crucial. As Barclays’ report admits ‘the cultural backcloth does not appear to have shifted significantly’.
Danielle Stewart, who has two young girls, says working for herself has helped her see more of her children. She claims it is ‘fantastic’ to have the flexibility to leave the office to spend more time with the kids, or bring them into the office if need be, ‘something I wouldn’t be able to do in a big company’.
But one woman’s advantage could be another’s disadvantage. Monteith believes female entrepreneurs can feel they are not taken ‘seriously’ if they tell clients they have to leave to pick up their children. Often they ‘pretend’ they have a meeting at 3.30pm. ‘We have to feel confident enough about ourselves,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe having another commitment makes me a second class person.’
A macho working culture that demands longer hours, despite home commitments, can exacerbate this problem. What many female – and male – entrepreneurs are looking for is greater flexibility. BDO Stoy Hayward’s Kathryn Britten, also chairman of the ICAEW’s workplace initiative, says getting that right is crucial: ‘It is loud and clear that people want a good work-life balance.’
Increasingly, the corporates are realising they have to offer such flexibility to retain staff.
Despite the cynicism, the potential for an increased number of female start-ups within accountancy looks likely to increase if only through the number of women now practicing.
The ICAEW says 42% – 5,042 of 11,933 students – are female. Just seven years ago that proportion was 36%.
Similarly, the number of students at CIMA is growing. It now has 20,724 female students in the UK. And, if further start-ups can be accompanied by a real change in attitudes meaning an end to the ‘cultural backcloth’ that Barclays identifies, then any future survey will truly make headlines.
PROGRESS ON EQUALITY – BUT COULD DO BETTER
This month’s report from Barclays on women entrepreneurs is, on the face of it, extremely encouraging, writes Damian Wild.
According to the bank ‘women are performing a remarkable juggling act in managing work and family commitments’.
Small business minister Patricia Hewitt was among those encouraged by its findings. ‘The review shows the very real progress women are making in business and the tremendous contribution they are already making to the economy,’ she said at its launch.
But no one should think the battle for gender equality is over. Almost half of the businesses run by women are in the retail, leisure and personal services sectors. This contrasts sharply with their male counterparts whose businesses tend to be spread more evenly across the sectors.
The fact that 80 percent of women are still responsible for looking after children or arranging childcare facilities will not help redress this imbalance. No wonder Hewitt cautioned: ‘The report also highlights particular difficulties women sometimes face in running their own businesses. These issues give us all food for thought.’
Interestingly, the survey also asked men what they thought was driving the changes. It found:
– 90% of men and women believe it is now easier for women to start their own business than in recent years:
– 21% of men feel women are ‘better with people’
– 23% of men feel women have ‘a better image’ which gives them a key advantage when starting a business.
However, some of the findings were depressing:
– 25% of women running their own business have experienced sexual discrimination in the last five years
– men are more likely to believe sexual discrimination would be a barrier for women (26% of men, compared to 16% of women)
– 37% of women believe not being taken seriously is a greater issue (compared to 21% of men).
But, despite the problems, Barclays Director of Equality and Diversity Niccola Swan took heart from the report. ‘Many of the women we spoke to said the skills they have acquired in managing their family and home have also really helped their business,’ she said.
‘They said they were better organised and able to juggle responsibilities and tasks much more readily than men. The great news is that the majority of women and men feel running a business has either increased the quality of their family life or had no detrimental effect.” For more on the report go to www.newsroom.barclays.co.uk/news/data/467.html.
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