For women, the workplace has long been a battleground. The gender pay gap is real: in Australia, women earn 16.2% less than their male counterparts. Globally, female entrepreneurs receive less investment than men, and due to societal expectations to raise children, women’s careers can suffer when employment and motherhood collide.
However, the outlook is changing. Technology is having a profound impact on helping women to work more flexibly, connect with other entrepreneurs and even access credit and investment. Let’s explore how.
The rise of flexibility
Sarra Bejaoui co-founded SmartPA after becoming frustrated with the rigidity of her corporate job. “There was absolutely no flexibility in terms of working hours or location,” she explains. “This is particularly challenging for women with children, who might need to take their child to the dentist on a Tuesday morning.”
“From their own experience, female business owners have good ideas about what female friendly work arrangements look like,” Sarra says. With a predominantly female workforce, SmartPA offers its employees complete control over their hours and projects, as well as the option to work completely from home. “Real empowerment in the workplace is about listening to how women want to work – giving women the power, the tools and the coaching to unlock their own destiny and potential.”
Hayley Smith, Director of Boxed Out PR, agrees. Also advocating a remote working model, she says that her staff are “happier, healthier and less stressed out” when they’re not as worried about managing childcare, expenses and a fixed workload.
Better access to capital
Jennifer Hart, Director of Sydney-based Everyday Cashmere, applied for finance from a traditional provider to pay for a shipment of cashmere from Mongolia. Her business growth was impressive (41% year on year for three years), and yet she was turned down. Before rejecting her application, the traditional provider asked how much her husband earns. “It made me feel worthless,” Jennifer recounts. “I don’t think the outcome of a man’s loan application would be changed by how much his wife earns.”
According to research by EY, women are more likely to accept rejection when it comes to business loans. However, Jennifer didn’t let it stop her. After speaking up about her treatment by the banks, she turned to alternative finance sources – who approved her application almost immediately. “At first, it was hard to swallow the rejection,” she says. “But a bank is just one – fairly traditional – institution. It’s crucial to empower yourself with as much information as possible about other avenues.”
Venture capital funding for women is still lacking: in 2014, only 3% of venture capital funding went to companies with female CEOs – which is nearly as low as the percentage of women at partner level in VC firms themselves (6% in 2014). However, the good news is that women are actually leaving the big VCs to set up their own firms. Given that VCs with female partners are nearly three times as likely to invest in companies with women in management positions, this is great news for female entrepreneurs.
Growing mentorship networks
In her seminal book ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg points to a lack of mentorship as one of the factors that hold women back at work. Considering that many of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs wax lyrical about the importance of mentorship, observing women’s lack of access to it is disheartening.
Sarra met her mentor – who is now on the executive board of SmartPA – through work. Her mentor’s experience, business acumen, and later investment, empowered her to launch and grow her company. “One of the most crucial pieces of advice I can give a female entrepreneur is to find a mentor who is interested in and committed to your business,” she says.
Luckily, in tandem with the growth of female business owners, a range of support and mentorship networks have opened up. Some great ones (besides Leaders in Heels, of course!) are:
It’s probably not surprising to hear that initiatives directed at women work best when they’re coordinated by women. Elli, a business consultant, recounts a programme at her former job, a male-dominated corporate. “My previous company had a women’s empowerment group. It was run by men who talked at us about how important women are in the workplace, and it ran classes on etiquette and cooking,” she laughs. “At best, it missed the point. At worst, it was condescending.”
One of the most crucial pieces of advice I can give a female entrepreneur is to find a mentor who is interested in and committed to your business.
Part of empowering women is helping them to build their confidence and assert themselves in the workplace – a trait that is often discouraged in women from an early age. At SmartPA, Sarra ensures that she runs regular webinars and training sessions to help her team grow their self-esteem, learn new skills and ultimately, realise their value.
However, women shouldn’t pressure themselves to adopt more ‘male’ traits in the workplace. Sarra explains, “don’t fall into the trap of measuring your worth in the framework of masculinity – embrace your DNA and build your confidence as a woman.”
Increasingly, women are choosing entrepreneurship, self-employment and flexible companies to work in a way that works for them. And while it is inspiring to see the myriad networks that are helping women around the world to access finance, mentorship and support, women’s work is far from done. Challenging, speaking up and making allies is essential groundwork to make the year of 2017 better than its predecessor. As Sarra says, “a woman is every bit as worthy as her male counterpart – empowerment is about helping her realise it.”
Kelly Maguire is the PR and Communications Manager for Spotcap Australia and NZ – a Berlin-based global online fintech lender specialising in the commercial lending space. Previously in corporate communications, she initially cut her teeth in journalism at the ABC, and holds a Bachelor of Communications and an MA from the University of Technology, Sydney.