The “Woman in Business” was an enigma
The “Woman in Business” was an enigma
When I was a little girl, maybe as young as preschool I was asked the seemingly innocuous question “What do you want to be when you grow up”. I am confident most American children are asked this same question, and in the early 90’s, even with the push for gender equality becoming more of a norm, the idea of “boy jobs” and “girl jobs” was still a pervasive part of culture. I have zero recollection of what my answer was, but I can confidently tell you it was something gendered. Maybe a princess? Like so many of my classmates the concept of a “job” meant nothing to me, nor did the idea of a “business woman” ring any bells — but the social conditioning of what I was allowed to be was already strong.
Flash forward about 5 years, I was still young enough to watch cartoons but old enough to develop an interest in other media, particularly magazines. If you asked now 10 year old me, “What does a businesswoman look like”, I would have definitely answered one of two things: Either Angelica Pickles mom from the Rugrats (90’s babies I know you feel me on this) OR the legend that is Anna Wintour.
What did these two comical perceptions of a working woman have in common? It was the power suits, and power outfits in general, the constant commanding and almost scary presence and this idea that if a lady was in business she was in control, busy, going all the time and, dare I say it? …scary.
The perception of women as emotionally and physically fragile creature that are only suited to home life goes wayyyy back. From the idea of the perfect housewife in the 40’s and 50’s to settler images of women in massive bonnets caring for children while their husbands worked the land and made the “real” decisions. During the feminist movement of the 60’s women began to enter the workforce in droves (shoutout to Katherine Graham, the first woman publisher at the Washington Post in the 60’s). But, it wasn’t until the 90’s that this idea of the female boss, with her power suits, cellphone in hand and intense personality became a part of popular culture.
The image of a founder, even googled today brings up mainly photos of men in suits. Some women, but mostly white dudes in suits. Secondarily, the 2020 vision of a woman is business remains largely the same as the 90’s. Power outfits, strong personality, firing on all cylinders, all of the time.
Women are pivoting from the corporate ladder to business ownership
I think any woman reading this can agree that the perception of men in leadership hasn’t changed much, and that the reality for women at the leadership level can be harsh. Just 21% of c-suite executives are women, and although that number is higher than it has been, it is simply still far too low. The promotion funnel is still broken, with equal successes and expertise, for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 85 women were. When we layer on factors such as race, socioeconomic background and children, numbers can look even more abysmal.
Lynn (name changed for privacy), a director in the medical device industry said,
“There’s already a limited number of those kind of roles, it breeds intense competition. With the prevalent bias it is SO hard to break through after a certain level and even be truly considered. Women go above and beyond and are willing to sacrifice so much, just to continue to hit the ceiling. I think a lot of women are fed up with it all together. Maybe the thought is why would we continue to devote our whole lives to companies that don’t see our potential”
Could this be a major contributor to the number of women taking control of their career destinies? A global survey from Visa would point to yes. The top reasons women gave for leaving a traditional path and pursuing entrepreneurship were a desire to pursue their passion, flexibility and financial security. In fact, there are 110% more female entrepreneurs today than there were 20 years ago. Around the world, female entrepreneurs number over 200 million, and that number rises every. single. day. This modern woman is not only a far cry from what so many women were conditioned to believe they could be growing up, she is completely different than the traditional image of a woman succeeding in a corporate setting. This woman might conjure up images of Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx, Or Danielle Moss, co-founder of The Everygirl (a social media account turned full blown media company, She might look like Shontay Lundy of Black Girl Sunscreen who refused to accept that a product wasn’t “for” her community. This woman might look like… you!
From consumer packaged goods to technology, finance, food and beverage and beyond. The modern ‘”woman in business” is a diverse and talented conceptual being. Passionate, brave, bold and unique. She is not told how to act, or that her opinions should be communicated more softly. She knows she has value, and so do her ideas.
We’re in the workforce, but the glass ceiling is still here, too
The image of what it can mean to be a woman in business has certainly changed, but what about the numbers? Let me give you the good news first – women are out here crushing it when compared to their male counterparts. As Jane VC founder Jennifer Neundorfer said “female entrepreneurs are an overlooked asset class that are over-performing”. In a study from Boston consulting group it was found that for every one dollar of funding received female-founded startups generated 78 cents whereas male founded startups generated just 31. Private tech companies led by women? You’re looking at a 35% higher ROI. Diversity is also booming in the entrepreneurial world, with Black women starting businesses faster than any other racial group and Latina-owned businesses grew over 80% between 2007 and 2012 alone (just imagine where the numbers are now).
“So, what’s the bad news?!” You might be asking. Well, remember those pesky cultural norms and gender biases we talked about earlier? Yeah, they might just be affecting the women’s entrepreneurial journey too.
Women may have gone from a glass ceiling, over to a bank-vault door. And it all comes down to funding and access. The HSBC reports that over 1/3 of women have faced a gender bias when raising capital. Not surprising, but definitely still infuriating. And that bias? When women do secure capital it’s 5% less than men globally. The added impact of race and socioeconomic background are not lost here. Women of color face significantly greater challenges than even their white female counterparts when trying to secure funding, back in 2016 only 1% of VC funding went to Black and Latino entrepreneurs AS A WHOLE. The narrative that these communities are either “high risk” or a special interest also continues to hurt women of color despite data showing the return on investment.
So we’ve come far, but there is still a LOT of work to do. More women are able to shape their life to align with their goals and dreams, share their gifts and garner the success they deserve. But those barriers to access and archaic ways of thinking have not disappeared. So what is the solution? The short way to answer that is the following:
Access and community.
Female founders deserve access to the same tools, knowledge, funding and opportunities as our male counterparts. Without this access we are (very valiantly and with bizarre success all things considered I might add) Fighting a dragon in the dark. When light is shed on the attitudes of others and they are forced to examine their bias, things can change. So we have to keep talking. When what others take for granted is accessible for all then it can truly be about how hard we’re working, because we all have the same tools. The importance of real community in all of this cannot be overstated. Together we are more than mighty. When you connect with other people who have a real investment in seeing you win, who want to share with you and let you share with them in ways that are meaningful to your businesses journey that is where the magic happens. When we demand more of our allies and how they use their privilege the scale begins to tip.
What do we do right now? We keep pushing, we keep throwing our hats into the ring, we stand with and for each other because the image of a “woman in business” can and will continue to evolve.
Maybe when the next generation of little girls picture a woman in business it wont be Charlotte Pickles, it might just be one of us. I really think that’s something worth fighting for.