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Why the shortage in women agency owners and what can be done about it?

A few months ago my business partner Imogen and I were asked to do

a talk for an audience of Agency Owners. Shortly before we were introduced on stage, our host flashed up a statistic on the screen that has stuck with me since. It read ‘Only 27% of Agency Owners in the UK are women’. He then went on to say that we were the first two women to speak at one of these events since they began 2 years ago. Then, as we stood up to face the 100 or so people in the room I noticed that the faces looking back at me told the same story, there were barely any women.

This got me thinking – why in a world supposedly of empowered equality and with a UK population of 51% women, was this such a male dominated environment? After all, in self owned businesses, there is no such thing as a glass ceiling and you get to choose the Leaders, Managers and those on your Board.

You only have to start digging a little further to realise the global statistics are shockingly similar. On average business owners are 25-30% women (MIWE report 2017), and higher percentages tend to be focused in the low-income economies where women-owned companies are driven by necessity and tend to focus on non-knowledge and non-innovation driven business.

Interestingly the same report suggests that compared to our global peers, the UK is not doing too badly. Whilst the underlying entrepreneurial conditions are not the most conducive, compared to other countries the local enterprise landscape is, in general, highly supportive of business success and entrepreneurs. It was also found that women entrepreneurs in the UK are often driven by strong desires to succeed rather than more forced motivational drivers those women in developing countries face.

If the economic conditions are more promising than other countries and women have a drive to succeed, why is Agency ownership still at 27% and more importantly what can we do to try and encourage more women to take the leap and become business owners?

What are some of the causal factors?

1. Lacking Confidence

At school we know that girls want to and do (academically speaking) achieve more than their male counterparts, but this changes when they enter the workplace. In her book ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg puts this down to what she calls the ‘leadership ambition gap’ – the idea that men are more ambitious and more likely to want to become leaders than women. There are a number of reasons she cites for this but one of the main ones is confidence, or in the case of young women, the lack of it.

Whilst both men and women experience what is known ‘Imposter Syndrome’ (a feeling that you will be ‘found out’ that you aren’t capable or competent), studies show that women are more often affected and more likely to suffer the consequences. According to Valerie Young (author of ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women’ 2011) boys are raised to show their confidence and exaggerate. Girls, on the other hand, are taught from an early age to stifle their voices and not to be ‘bossy’. Girls discover they are judged by the highest behavioural and intellectual standards, and perfection becomes the goal so every flaw, mistake or set back becomes internalised slowly eroding their self-confidence.

It is interesting to note, at school, boys thrive when girls are introduced to ‘all boy 6th forms’. The same cannot be said the other way around.

2. Lower risk tolerance

Another contributing factor stopping women leaving full time employment to set up their own business is their attitude towards risk. I can’t tell you how many times people asked me what I would do if it didn’t work out when I left full time employment to set up on my own. My answer, “I’d just go out and find another job knowing that I had given it my best shot”. Inherently women are more risk averse than men and statistics consistently show they have a greater fear of failure, so perhaps my attitude was less common than I thought.

3. The ultimate life juggle

The final and perhaps biggest ‘perceived’ factor is the challenge women face when combining a career with raising a family. Whilst significant steps have been made by many companies to even this out in the workplace (with the introduction of shared parental leave) the reality is that women still tend to shoulder more of the responsibility of childcare than their male counterparts and when you run your own business you are ultimately always ‘on call’. Alongside this sit the remnants of stereotypical and out-dated social norms. Opinions about what it means to be a ‘good mother’ or ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ ringing in your ears, coupled with the continuing pay gap means often a man’s career takes precedence once a child has been born and these barriers start to add up.

We are told great ideas and innovation come from diverse thought – the same is true for business. The economy needs strong, creative, thought-leading, diverse leadership that women can offer to complement their male counterparts.

So what can be done?

More cheerleaders

When it comes to confidence we should cheerlead one another. Whether that be as a mentor, manager, coach, friend, parent or partner who really unearths a person’s hopes, dreams and ambitions, giving them the confidence to succeed - finding out what is stopping them achieving these and helping them to develop the skills they need to take the leap.

We also need to showcase women business owner role models more, allowing others to see the possibilities (warts and all) rather than focusing on achieving perfection, sharing the journey as well as the successes so it encourages others to take the first step. Earlier this year Stylist magazine launched their ‘Visible Women’ Campaign which is aimed at increasing this visibility and sharing these stories but we need more of this….

Be fearless

Women need to challenge themselves to take more risks. A great way to start this is set fear goals and regularly ask yourself what you would do if you had no fear.

When it comes to risk, it is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. If you want to set up your own business, realise you don’t have to do it alone. I know I couldn’t have started my own consultancy without my very dear friend and partner in crime. The journey can be lonely at times and having someone who complements your skill set, helps you build your own confidence and shares the growing pains and fun with you is for me, invaluable.

You get out what you put in

It is hard to run a business and balance childcare responsibilities. But frankly, even if you don’t have a family, having a busy career always requires sacrifice and long hours and a constant balance of life. I would challenge any woman out there who is thinking of setting up their own business to DO IT. Yes, there are hard times and many hours and effort into making it a success. But if you invest the time and energy, ultimately you are the master of your own destiny (and time) and whilst there will always be the challenge of not dropping a ball (or child), I believe being your own boss will afford more flexibility and fulfilment than any other career choice.

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