Statistics show that more women than ever before are choosing to start their own businesses. The reasons and contributing factors for this are many, but it’s changing the face of business and revolutionising entrepreneurship.
It’s the government’s responsibility to make sure that we keep pace with that change and support women who want to move into enterprise.
In spite of the progress in boardrooms, women lag behind male counterparts in terms of representation in the business world. Women make up 51 per cent of the UK population but only 17 per cent of business owners.
Earlier this month, I held a round-table for businesswomen from across the Capital. The idea was for the group to feed ideas into the women in the workplace inquiry by the House of Commons business, innovation and skills committee, which looks at gender equality and barriers which stop women from entering certain fields.
What resulted was a much wider discussion about the day-to-day issues which affect businesswomen.
The group ranged from those with years of multinational experience to women who had had an innovative idea, belief in it and the drive to take it to market.
Research shows that once in business, these women would not underperform when compared to their male counterparts. There are few gender-related performance differences in small company owners and those self-employed entrepreneurs.
The one thing which does differentiate men and women once in business is the rate of growth that their business sees. Women-owned firms are less likely to show growth and few actually intend to grow their firms – where they do, they have lower expectations of job creation than their male counterparts.
These differences can, in part, be explained by the other pressures facing women. Often they have childcare commitments and run businesses part-time around those commitments. Owner-managers working for between ten and 39 hours a week and working from home are twice as likely to be women as men.
However, for all of the women I spoke to, lack of ambition was not an issue. Each was enthusiastic about growing their company, to provide employment opportunities for others and to act as role models. The barriers to achieving this were practical, and that’s where government needs to act.
Being a working parent to a young son, I am aware of what a costly business childcare is. So hearing that both the cost and availability of good-quality childcare is a key factor in the enterprise equation was not a shock. Simply put, does working more mean that the extra money is paid straight out to a childminder? If the sums work, can you even get your kids into a nursery or after-school group? These are the practicalities which hold back our entrepreneurs.
In government, the Lib Dems have tried to improve the situation, providing 15 hours of free childcare each week for every three and four-year-old and for some two-year-olds in England. It’s clear that the costs of childcare in the UK are substantially higher than the rest of Europe.
Before the Budget in March, I will be calling on the Chancellor to examine whether the government can do more to help directly with the costs of childcare.
The Scottish Government’s free entitlement scheme currently provides less support, totalling 525 hours per year. The Children and Young People Bill, the details of which the Scottish Government is yet to announce, will look to increase provision to 600 hours but this needs to happen quickly for our budding businesswomen. Free care is of no use if it is sub-standard or if parents are unable to access it.
We also need to look to change the way in which we see the working day. Many employers have introduced flexible working, including home working, and the UK government’s reforms, led by Business Secretary Vince Cable, means that every employee now has the right to ask to work flexibly. In theory, this allows parents to share childcare duties and sends a clear signal about equality in the workplace, but the cultural expectation of employers and other employees to see a standard working pattern may take a little longer to change.
If we can get the practicalities like childcare and working hours right, then far more aspiring females will feel confident and comfortable in taking on more work and growing their business while still maintaining the all-important work-life balance.
There is a huge amount of talent and experience among Scotland’s women and hearing from them first hand was a wake-up call to ensure that we do push for further reform.
• Mike Crockart is Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Edinburgh West and a member of the House of Commons business innovation and skills select committee.
EXTRA CHALLENGES TO OVERCOME
Jackie Brierton MBE, managing director of Women’s Enterprise Scotland, says: “Women who are running businesses are key contributors to the UK economy and employment creation, but they often have additional challenges to overcome. Business support, access to finance and affordable childcare are key issues for many female business owners, and government can help to create a more level playing field for women trying to balance enterprise with family responsibilities.”
FIVE WHO ARE SETTING THE STANDARD
1. Lucinda Ledgerwood: Ex- Apprentice contestant, now medical herbalist at Miss IntegriTea.
2. Deidre Kinloch Anderson: Director of Edinburgh-based kilt experts Kinloch Anderson, awarded an OBE for services to the textile industry.
3. Liz McAreavey: Commercial director at Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce; worked as development director at Ernst & Young.
4. Erica Moore: Set up Eteaket Tea Boutique and Cafe.
5. Ann Budge: Set up Newell & Budge, promoting equality in workplace.