As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we take a look at the past, present, and future of women in business.
The business landscape is changing. COVID-19 pandemic aside, attitudes towards ‘traditional’ ways of doing business are changing. What’s more, there’s evidence to suggest that women are playing a large role in shaping this future of business. We take a look at the history that has created the current landscape, and what we can expect to see in the future.
As well as exploring some of the data and evidence around the subject, we’ve also spoken with some of our partners to get their expert insight on the matter.
A brief history of women in business
Many people are unfamiliar with the fact that the history of female entrepreneurship reaches far back into the past. The first well-documented businesswomen can be traced back as far as 1870 BC to the city of Assur in northern Iraq. Assyrian women at the time often contributed to vast trading networks that flourished in the region, showing that business was not exclusive to men.
There are many more recent examples of women in business too. Margaret Hardenbroeck, for example, arrived in what would become New York in 1659 and established herself as a debt collector before becoming a business agent. She traded between Holland and the colonies, eventually becoming the wealthiest woman in New York.
Such stories are not as uncommon as you might think. Throughout the 18th Century, businesswomen traded in the major cities of the world, and there are many examples of successful female entrepreneurs owning and running their own businesses. Mary Katherine Goddard became the first woman publisher in America in 1766, Madam C.J. Walker owned a million-dollar haircare business in the 1890s, and Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in 1913.
However, during the mid-19th Century, there was a shift in the labour force that saw women focusing more on domestic tasks, while men became the sole wage earners. Until recently, such ‘traditional’ gender roles have persisted.
In 1973, for example, there was only one female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Katharine Graham. During this time, only 38% of the workforce in the US was women. In 2019, that number had increased to 46.2%, while 37 Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO.
The current landscape for women in business
Clearly, the last few decades have seen at least some positive changes in terms of opportunities for, and representations of, women in the world of business. But what does the current landscape mean for the future? We’ve picked out some of the key statistics, and the current positives and challenges, which might shape the decades to come.
Women in business – the statistics
How well-represented are women in the world of business? And how many female-owned businesses are there? As you might expect, there have been many studies into such questions. Here are some of the stand-out statistics about women in business:
- Only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs is female. This gender gap is equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- In 2017, only 5.6% of UK women ran their own businesses, compared to 15% of women in Canada, almost 11% of women in the US, and over 9% of women in Australia and the Netherlands. (HM Treasury 2019)
- In the US, the share of women-owned businesses representative of all businesses has skyrocketed from a mere 4.6% in 1972 to 42% in 2019. (State of Women-Owned Business Report, American Express 2019)
- Only 13 per cent of the most senior staff members working on investment teams in venture capital and private equity are women. (HM Treasury 2019)
- Just 5% of leadership positions in the UK technology sector are held by women today. (PwC UK, 2017)
- Less than 1 per cent of all UK venture funding is awarded to all-female teams. (Illuminate Ventures 2018)
- For every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, businesses with all-female founders get less than 1p, mixed-gender founding teams get 10p, and all-male founders get 89p. (Illuminate Ventures 2018)
The gender pay gap
- In the UK, the overall gender pay gap is 15.5%. (Office for National Statistics 2020)
- In the US, the overall gender pay gap is around 19%. (PayScale 2020)
- In 2020, the gap among full-time employees in the UK fell to 7.4%, from 9.0% in 2019. (Office for National Statistics 2020)
Reasons to celebrate
As you can see from the statistics outlined above, both positives and negatives are apparent in the data. Although discrepancies still exist in terms of representation and equality, there has been a lot of progress made in recent years on these fronts.
What’s more, there are many examples of successful women in the workplace and female entrepreneurs making a difference. As Abadesi Osunsadem, founder and CEO of Hustle Crew, outlines:
Most female founders are solving problems that no one else was paying attention to. Think of Audrey Gelman and The Wing. Sharmadean Reid and Beautystack, Whitney Wolfe Herde and Bumble. Each of these entrepreneurs realised there was something unique to women’s experience of life that the patriarchy had yet to improve upon, fix or solve.
She goes on to explain some of the ground-breaking changes these women have made to their organisations:
Whether it’s creating workspaces for women (such as setting them at the right temperature and adding rooms for breastfeeding), creating a marketplace for beauty pros and an online community for ambitious women, or creating a safe, inclusive community to gain new authentic connections, none of these innovations would have happened without courageous women willing to challenge the status quo.
This spirit of challenging the status quo is at the heart of this year’s International Women’s Day event. The Choose to Challenge theme focuses on calling out gender bias and inequality while celebrating women’s achievements.
Through events such as these, and through the successful female entrepreneurs and businesswomen that are making a difference, there are many reasons to celebrate. Change is happening, and we’ll continue to make progress as we strive for greater inclusivity and diversity.
The challenges women in business still face
So what’s currently preventing greater gender equality in the world of business? As we saw in our statistics, the gender gap goes beyond just pay. We’ve picked out some of the current barriers that need addressing as we strive for greater equality and rights.
A lack of funding for female entrepreneurs
One of the most concerning aspects of the data around women in business is the lack of funding entrepreneurs often get. As we saw from the data, less than 1 per cent of all UK venture funding goes to all-female teams, while mixed-gender teams account for just 10%.
As our partners at the global women’s network AllBright explain:
For women looking to set up their own businesses, the main challenges are often a lack of funding and investment. There is unfortunately still a huge gender disparity when it comes to funding within the UK and global startup ecosystem, with funding for female-founded business significantly dropping last year, which simply isn’t good enough – and shows that there is still significant progress to be made in this area.
More needs to be done to ensure that women are not only given equal opportunities to start their own businesses but that they also feel empowered enough to do so.
Underrepresentation in senior roles
Another significant challenge faced by women in business is that of representation in roles of authority. As we explored in our article on women in tech, there is a shortage of women in leadership positions across industries and countries. In 2020, the proportion of women in senior management roles globally was 29%. Although this is the highest number recorded, it’s still far from equal.
Additionally, there are clearly issues when you look at the gender divide among different roles. Women are over-represented in support functions like administration, for example, while in positions that lead to senior leadership jobs, men have a much higher representation.
Again, AllBright helps to underline why this is such an important issue:
The more women own their confidence and abilities and continue to smash down the glass ceiling, the more we will see the rise of female representation in senior leadership positions. But women need access to support, as well as training and resources, in order to do this. Networks are vital for making this change. That’s why our main focus at AllBright is creating a global sisterhood where women can network in a safe and creative space, providing them with the tools they need for success.
A confidence gap
When you dig deeper into the reasons why women might not think about or pursue a career in a traditionally male-dominated space, there are several points that frequently arise. Confidence and self-belief often play a role.
Women are often less likely to self-promote or self-advocate at work, usually through fear of receiving a negative response. The research finds that this is the case even when there is no gap in ability of performance between men and women.
Again, organisations like AllBright are helping to raise awareness of and tackle these issues:
There is a massive confidence gap between men and women in the workplace, most notably among those in their mid-20s and 30s. Upskilling is a great way to help women boost their confidence – we want to encourage them to own the space and their voice, and realise that what they have to say is worthy of being heard. Having a sisterhood is vital in helping women see they aren’t alone in feeling like this, and they can act as cheerleaders and supporters in helping women to grow their confidence and, ultimately, smash their goals.
A need for cultural changes
Ultimately, there needs to be a shift in how we think about and treat women in business roles. From organisations and executive boards right down to individuals, we all need to be willing and accountable to enact change. This means challenging stereotypes, championing diversity, and creating a working environment that allows everyone to thrive and progress.
Whether it’s changing stereotypes of women in the media or empowering people to negotiate for fair pay, these adjustments will help to balance the scales. And, although change is happening, more needs to come.
How women are shaping the future of business
Although there certainly are challenges women in business face, there are plenty of positives to focus on too. We can also find plenty of examples of businesswomen and entrepreneurs who are enacting significant changes, supercharging their careers, and helping to shape the future of business.
Here are just some of the ways in which women are helping to transform the business world for generations to come:
Bringing new innovation
As women gain more power and influence in the world of business, they bring with them fresh ideas and innovation. Across a wide range of industries, greater gender equality helps to create new products, services, and businesses. Not only does this benefit organisations, but it’s also good for consumers, giving them more choice that’s more relevant to them.
There’s also evidence to suggest that companies are more profitable when women make up more than one in three executive roles.
Adding a new approach to leadership
Although the representation of women in leadership roles is still an issue, it has improved in recent years. Furthermore, women in these positions bring with them a unique set of skills and competencies that can help to enact change.
As well as the hard skills needed for c-suite and executive roles, it’s the soft skills that can make a difference. A 2016 study also found that women score higher than men on nearly all emotional intelligence competencies. These include qualities such as conflict management, adaptability, and teamwork, which are all essential for workplace leadership.
Helping with diversity and inclusion
Inclusion and diversity are still some of the broader issues in the world of business. However, as more women find routes into the corporate world and progress through it, the more representation there is. As a result, the more role models and inspirational women in business there are, the more appealing the industry becomes to others.
With mentorships and coaching, women are able to help other women enter and thrive in the world of business, helping to create more inclusive working environments for everyone.
Changing social norms
Studies have shown that some of the major factors behind the persistent gender gap are harmful social norms and stereotypes about women and men. As more women enter and succeed in businesses and more female entrepreneurs create change, these social norms will shift.
Women in business today are helping to break down harmful stereotypes and challenging the status quo. Again, this links back to the Choose to Challenge theme for International Women’s day. Today’s pioneers are shaping the future of business for years to come for the benefit of everyone.
Resources for women in business
To round off our look at the current and future role of women in business, we’ve pulled together some resources that can help those who have been inspired to drive change. As well as getting input from our partners AllBright and Hustle Crew, we’ve also picked out some of our courses and other resources that can provide further information:
- Believe, Build, Become: How to Supercharge your Career
- Salary Negotiation for Women in the Workplace
- Understanding Gender Inequality
- A Global History of Sex and Gender: Bodies and Power in the Modern World
- Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today
- Gender Representation in the Media
- Business Ethics: An Introduction to Ethics for Business Leaders
- Leading People and Teams
- Business Model Thinking
- Unleash Your Potential: Innovation and Enterprise
- Build a Startup from Scratch: the Venture Design Process
- Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men – Caroline Criado Pérez
- More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say) – Elaine Welteroth
- Dream Big. Hustle Hard.: The Millennial Woman’s Guide to Success in Tech – Abadesi Osunsade
- AllBright digital membership. Unlimited access to over 170 courses on demand from the world’s best and brightest business minds. Packed full of unique insights, each course is designed to equip women with the skills, confidence and knowledge they need to reach their goals.
- Hustle Crew membership. Access to tools and information to help you grow as an agent of change. A weekly newsletter and monthly virtual workshop can help guide you through a range of proven tactics for long-lasting change.
- Tips for women becoming successful entrepreneurs post-covid. Practical tips and advice on female entrepreneurship and new businesswomen starting out in a post-pandemic world.