Forbes – January 11, 2012
Women are 50% more likely to start businesses than the national average, yet are 70% less likely than men to own a business with revenue of $1 million-plus, according to The American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Business Report.
Why does the start-up rate of women-owned businesses soar while the number in the big leagues — more than $1 million in revenue — stagnates?
It’s a question that exasperates me, especially in light of research from the Kauffman Foundation that shows getting those women-owned businesses on a high-growth track would energize our sluggish economy. The title of the report says it all: Women entrepreneurs as economic drivers.
But they’re not. And we need to find out what’s stopping them.
I think those who’ve broken through that $1 million plateau have insights that can guide others, so I asked them what they think the stumbling blocks are. After only a few interviews, key factors holding women back are emerging, along with the wisdom to overcome them:
- Women self-limit their ambitions.
- Their assertiveness is perceived as “bitchiness.”
- Men need to change.
- Women need to network.
Forewarned is forearmed. The observations of women who have crossed these barriers is instructive.
Liz Elting, CEO and co-founder of TransPerfect, the largest privately owned language services provider, with offices in 75 cities worldwide, is a good example of eluding the barriers to success. She started her business with a fellow student in a dorm room 19 years ago.
Women self-limit their ambitions.
All entrepreneurs must be passionate risk-takers, willing to work endless hours, invest everything and be assertive, she says. But when women assess starting businesses, they think ahead to when they may have children and need a schedule that can accommodate childcare. They opt for career paths that seem safer and more flexible than running a major corporation.
Elting followed — and advocates — another tack: Go for broke when you are young and have nothing to lose. Don’t worry about whether you’ll have a flexible schedule in 10 years, just do whatever your are passionate about. If your business concept is good, you’ll find yourself with the resources to create the options you need to accommodate motherhood and childcare.
The first order of cultural change, she says, is to debunk the idea that to be a good mom, you have to limit your ambition. “If you want to have a family and run a business, you can — and a growing number of us do,” says Elting.
Sweeney adds another observation about self-limitation. Women don’t exaggerate as well as men. When she worked in the upper echelons of corporate America, she learned that she was remiss if she didn’t exaggerate her division’s projected revenue. Men did and got financing for the growth they projected, then adjusted projections downward as the year progressed. She made realistic projections and got less funding.
Her advice? Push the limits. Negotiate better. Don’t settle for less risk and less money.
Women’s assertiveness is perceived as “bitchiness.”
No one likes to be a “bitch,” but when women leaders make tough decisions, the response is critical and personal. When men make tough decisions, they are “strong” or “assertive” but women … that “b” word crops up. “If you want everyone to like you, you will have a hard time doing what is necessary,” Elting says.
An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur. Women who are entrepreneurs must be viewed as “entrepreneurs” and evaluated as such, not as “women entrepreneurs” and evaluated by their child-bearing ambitions or their failure to be sweet all the time.
Men need to change.
Finally, men must share in household responsibilities. That doesn’t mean being a stay-at-home dad. It does mean recognizing that your wife’s career matters as much as yours does. It means men must be educated about the joys of fatherhood.
Both Elting and Sweeney have supportive husbands who have their own careers. And these days Sweeney sees a lot more dads dropping their kids off at the 4 o’clock soccer practice.
Women need to network.
Most networking groups are male-dominated, Sweeney says. She’d like to get meaningful feedback from other women. She sees social networking as a boon. “A young woman may not call Meg Whitman but she can follow her [on social media] and learn,” she says.
In her company, leaving early for mommy (or daddy) duties is not frowned upon. She focuses on outcomes — is the job done, the customer well served? — rather than seat time.
When Elting became a mother, she became aware of the need to offer family-friendly options within her company. “We have an investment in these people,” she says. She’s started an in-house group for women who are thinking about becoming mothers or have young children, to share ideas about achieving life-work balance as a mother.
Change, it seems, is already happening. The women who have made it are leaving the door open for those who follow.