March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day.
I started my first business in 1986. In many ways it’s better to be a businesswoman today than 30 years ago, but we still have a long way to go to make the workplace American – including small business – really female friendly.
As a woman who has worked in business for three decades, I thought this would be a good time to see what has changed for women small business owners and women entrepreneurs, what hasn’t. and, alas, what got worse. Here is:
What has changed for the better?
Expectations about what women can accomplish. My first job in San Francisco included fundraising. Many of those who interviewed me did not believe that a woman could raise money, especially from wealthy men. Now it is (generally) understood that a woman can be successful in virtually any field.
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Female models. There is an old saying: “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Now girls and young women are watching women in all kinds of leadership roles. When President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address, the two people seated behind him — second and third in line for the presidency — were both women, including a woman of color. Now there are female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — not enough — but some. It is no longer rare to see a woman owning a business, being a boss.
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Many more women-owned businesses. Women owned 2.5 million businesses in 1980, according to the Small Business Administration. These businesses earned an average of $2,200, or 31.5% of what male-owned businesses earned. In 2019, there were nearly 13 million women-owned businesses, and these businesses generated annual revenues of $384,359, or 51% of what male-owned businesses generated.
Women are less competitive with each other. In the 1980s, in many companies, hiring a woman was just a token gesture, and if a woman got a job, it meant that no other woman would. As new opportunities have opened up, women are supporting each other more. There’s more “girl power” than catfights.
Sexual harassment is now taken a little more seriously. When I was a young employee, I often heard male employees – including my superiors – talk about the anatomy of other women in front of me. My friends have told me about bosses telling them they have to sleep with them to get ahead. I was sexually harassed myself and was told that if I complained I would never work in the industry again. It hasn’t gone away, of course, but the #MeToo movement has changed the nature of the conversation – more people believe women and take complaints seriously. And just last week, President Biden comes signed a law banning forced arbitration agreements for incidents of sexual harassment.
More men involved in parenting. Although it does not directly affect women, having more men involved in parenting not only means there is more help for women in the workforce, but it means more bosses understand some of the pressure on mothers. Ideally, this means they will be friendlier and develop more parent-friendly policies and atmospheres.
What hasn’t changed?
Lack of affordable and quality child care and preschools. Let’s be clear: one of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in business and employment is the lack of quality, affordable childcare. My nephew and his wife in Colorado pay $2,000 a month to babysit two kids three days a week! Although statistics vary, especially from state to state, the the average cost of child care for a child averages almost $10,000 per year. This alienates women from the labor market and reduces their ability to create successful businesses. the US spends less on child care than virtually any other developed country. It’s time for government-subsidized day care centers and kindergartens.
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Lack of paid maternity leave. I’m lucky to have a business in California, one of the only eight States That Have Paid Maternity Leave. When my director of operations became pregnant, she was able to take a few months paid by the state. This allowed me to keep a key employee and for her to keep her job.
Lack of access to venture capital. Businesses founded by women only receive 2% of venture capital funding, a number virtually unchanged for more than 20 years. Venture capital is an “old boy” network, and startups led by women are held to very different standards than those founded by men.
Men still interrupt women when they talk. Years ago, a study pointed out that men interrupt women much more frequently than women interrupt men. A recent study of the dynamics of the Supreme Court showed this to be true even when women had more power than men. Male lawyers interrupted female Supreme Court justices – who have the power to influence their cases – far more frequently than male justices.
Women still downplay their assets. A woman honking her horn is seen as selfish, a man is seen as just passing on information. It’s much harder for a woman to share her accomplishments – with a potential client, a funder, an employee – than a man.
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What got worse?
Ageism. With social media, Zoom, and the celebration of young entrepreneurs, there’s more pressure than ever to look — and be — young and beautiful. A few years ago, I met a friend for lunch at the massive Silicon Valley company where he worked. As we sat in one of dozens of company cafeterias, serving free gourmet lunches, I said to her, “Look around, out of the hundred people here, I’m one of only three women .” His response: “And we’re the only two people over 40.” He was right.
Culture “Brother”. For the past decade, the American business community has celebrated young male entrepreneurs who have a brash, arrogant, and “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s no surprise that Facebook’s motto is “move fast and break things” – a sentiment never, ever shared by any mother.
Concert work. The gig economy benefits those who need flexibility the most – often women who have childcare. But these jobs come with no perks, high costs (workers usually have to provide their own cars, supplies), terrible working conditions, no worker safety, and usually poor pay. Our society needs to find a better structure to provide flexible working hours with greater worker protection and better compensation.