Businesswomen must co-operate to smash the glass ceiling, says TANYA SWEENEY, who spoke to nine of Ireland’s top female entrepreneurs
Madeleine Albright’s immortal quote – “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” – appears to be everywhere of late. Even country-pop princess Taylor Swift has been moved to cite it recently.
Certainly, global enterprise and the sisterhood was thrown into sharp focus last year when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made various statements about sleeping under her desk at Yahoo, banning telecommuting for her employees and taking only a few weeks for maternity leave.
While Mayer never claimed to be representative of other women, ‘Forbes’ promptly ran a damming opinion piece asking, “Should you hate Marissa Mayer?”
Paradoxically, seven of the world’s top companies have an above average number of women at board level (an average of 22.7pc female board members – the average is 19pc across FTSE100 firms).
Yet, as Mayer proves, when it comes to workplace equality and stamping out double standards, we still have a way to go.
On the flipside, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released her book ‘Lean In: Women, Work & The Will To Lead’ last year. The book, urging women to crash through the glass ceiling while acknowledging the leadership ambition gap between males and females, polarised opinion, but there was little doubting that it put the spotlight back on the complex narrative about women in the workplace.
Sandberg is no stranger to grand statements either: she recently bemoaned the fact that so few women stay in business once they have a child, and boldly proclaimed that the most important career decision a woman will make is the man she’ll marry.
Regardless, her bestseller spawned the ‘Lean In’ movement, encouraging women to achieve their professional and personal goals by ‘leaning’ into their ambitions and exchanging ideas and information with other women.
Closer to home, a group of female entrepreneurs were doing just that long before Sandberg invoked her battle cry.
Going for Growth, in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland and the Equality For Women Measure, is a peer-led initiative that matches female entrepreneurs – more than 160 to date – with others further along in their careers.
Through roundtable discussions, these women support each other by looking at challenges, opportunities and ways to grow and expand their businesses.
As women, we are beginning to realise that the opportunities for success are less than finite; in taking our own piece of the proverbial cake, we are not denying anyone else their share. In fact, the field is pretty wide open.
A recent report about Irish entrepreneurs revealed that only 10pc of high-potential start-ups backed by Enterprise Ireland were woman-led enterprises.
Elsewhere, several US researchers have documented the advent of “queen bee syndrome”, which is used to denote a woman in power who refuses to help other women, and treats subordinates more critically if they’re female. Yet, female entrepreneurs in Ireland are largely unfamiliar with the term, much less the concept.
Going for Growth is the brainchild of Paula Fitzsimons, who initially turned down the opportunity to champion women’s entrepreneurship at an earlier point in her career.
“At the time, my focus was on enterprise and growth, but when I saw the research, and the gap that was there, I felt someone had to do something,” she explains.
“I’m involved in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, and research showed in 2002 that fewer women than men started businesses. A year or two later I began to interrogate the (updated) figures. While we say that two-and-a-half times more men than women set up businesses, the research showed that nine times more men wanted to grow their businesses. It was clear that there was a gap that no one was addressing.
“At these events it’s not, ‘Rah-rah, aren’t we great?’, it’s about building confidence through achievement. The great thing is that women have become more believing of their potential and focused on business growth and on tackling international markets.”
While Irish female business owners are enjoying something of a purple patch, the same issues appear to be pertinent for all of them.
Some of them cite the hangover from the previous generation, where women were urged to leave the workforce upon getting married, while others contend that maternity leave can disrupt the momentum or the upward trajectory in a woman’s career.
Speaking to the women behind some of Ireland’s most dynamic businesses, it’s clear that the work-life balance is still an evergreen concern – by dint of sheer social conditioning, mothers are rather often the first ports of call when it comes to parenting duties.
Grandparents who fill in as childminders have become an invaluable resource for many working families, but there’s still a sentiment that there is room for improvement when it comes to formal childcare arrangements and the creation of shared parental leave (which will come into effect in the UK from 2015).
For now, however, good peer pressure from women in similar spheres is not just an asset, according to Paula, it’s the lifeblood of many businesswomen. The cliche still holds firm – there is strength in numbers.
Aisling Maher is the MD of Aisling Maher Designs (Aislingmaher.com), an accessories company in Limerick.
One of my big role models, aside from my parents, would be (fashion designer) Orla Kiely – she created her own niche in an industry that’s so cut-throat.
At the very beginning, running a business is isolating, and it was difficult to get started. But it’s so rewarding working for yourself because every battle you win is an achievement.
Sometimes the balance between work and life can be difficult to achieve. I don’t have children, so I can work late through evenings and weekends and I don’t really mind. The business takes over my life from time to time, especially as my busy period is April to October. But I try to do an awful lot of yoga to get that balance between life and the business right.
Female entrepreneurs who are interested in applying for the next Going for Growth programme can access information and register their interest at Goingforgrowth.com. The deadline for applying for the next programme is midnight on Monday, January 27th.