As a female CEO, I often get asked about what life is like as a founder and working mom. It always seems to come across like a trade-off, as if I have to pick one over the other. And I think it just highlights the fallacy that women can’t have it all.
Questions like this carry a judgment that women couldn’t possibly juggle the commitment of starting a business while having children. Or nurture the growth of a company while being a present, attentive wife or partner. Ultimately, I think these types of comments get at an expectation that female leaders are not as ready, willing, or able to run their businesses as male CEOs.
Sexist expectations like these set up women in the workplace to fail and, I think, falsely portray successful entrepreneurship as being out of reach to women. I refused to accept that I had to give up my entrepreneurial ambition or that I had to de-prioritize my family in some sort of trade-off. So, I designed my own path forward as a female business owner in a way that met my needs, and I am proud to call myself an unapologetic feminist as a result.
In this post, I sound off about how we can collectively manifest unapologetic feminism in our businesses and communities. As it turns out, it’s in all our best interests to do so.
Set Up Women for Leadership Roles
As a woman who has worked in male-dominated industries, I can attest first-hand what it’s like to wade through sexism and (attempted) intimidation. From my time working in private banking to now blazing trails in real estate development, I have learned how to smash the patriarchy. But I’m well aware that I’m the exception and not the rule.
A 2017 survey found 28% of women working in male-dominated industries had personally experienced sexual harassment. This statistic is higher than when women worked in female-led or gender-balanced work environments. In addition to sexual harassment, they often also deal with sexist stereotypes, more stress and anxiety, and a lack of mentorship or career advancement opportunities.
And what’s the result? Women force themselves to fit in by normalizing the very culture that objectifies them. Or their careers stall out, and in some cases, they even leave these industries altogether. It’s not a shock, then, to see the abysmal stats of women in C-Suite leadership, board roles, or as recipients of VC funding.
If you look at representation in the highest and lowest paying jobs, the disparity among men and women is jarring. The majority of the highest-paying jobs are male-dominated occupations (26 out of the 30 highest-paying jobs in the US). In comparison, most of the lowest-paying jobs are female-dominated occupations (23 of the 30 lowest-paying jobs).
Since founding Avana in 2014, I have been fortunate to leverage its growth and success to weed out vendors and partners that didn’t respect or align with a female-led company. I did not back down on this requirement and was surprised when men I fired from our job sites called up my husband to complain about me. My husband handles these calls with much amusement, standing behind my mission of building more diversity and inclusivity in our industry.
But most working moms and entrepreneurs don’t have this option, and they need people in power to help open the doors and opportunities that would otherwise be closed to them. If we don’t help set women up for success and leadership, we will keep losing the female talent that makes our companies and communities more prosperous.
Backing Women-Led Businesses is Good for Business
When it comes to entrepreneurship, women are founding more businesses than ever. The 2019 American Express State of Women in Business found that the number of women-owned businesses increased by 21% between 2014-2019 (to a total of nearly 13 million businesses). It looks super badass on the surface, but this rise in business creation is not translating into comparable revenue growth – women-led businesses represent only 4.3% of total revenue in the private sector.
Women are creating more and still making much less for it.
For every dollar generated by a privately held company, women-owned businesses generated 30 cents (frustratingly, this a further decrease from 37 cents in 1997). There is also a stark contrast between the top two categories of highest growth rates by business size – small businesses making less than $25k are the highest growth category, followed by those making $1 million or more in revenue. Growth rates for companies earning somewhere between $25k-$1 million – the middle of the pack – remained flat from 2014-2019. We’re watching women take on side hustles, small business initiatives, and start-ups – often out of need or circumstance – with little to no room or support for revenue growth.
In terms of leadership roles, having female representation on executive committees has proven time and again to be an indicator of more profitable companies. FTSE350 companies with executive committees with more than 33% female membership have more than ten times the profit margin of companies that don’t. Then I look at the state of things at home in Canada, where a woman leads only two of the most influential 100 companies listed on the S&P/TSX Composite Index, and it just makes my stomach turn. Just as it should make shareholders and business leaders wake up and smell the lost dollars. Leaders need to put – and keep – women on leadership paths for their benefit. That’s not radical feminism – it’s common-sense business management.
Support Working Moms
Whether women and working mothers are in the workforce or are entrepreneurs, we need to support them collectively. The COVID-19 pandemic put a massive spotlight on the disparity working women face, and we cannot afford to look away.
In January alone, job losses and unemployment rates hit a staggering depth that significantly affected women more than men. Why? Because women have been leaving jobs to take care of their children (often due to school closures). They also tend to have jobs in higher-risk or economically unstable industries heavily affected by restrictions and closures.
Working moms are at a clear disadvantage, and they need our support now more than ever. Remote working, better sick day policies, or other flexible work options can help provide a work-life balance that acknowledges the reality we’re facing today. These are just some of the things that can help take care of our families and our economy’s future.
And if women embark on entrepreneurial paths, we need to afford them the same access to funding and capital that men can get. Women-owned businesses heavily index across services, healthcare, and social assistance. It’s not hard to see how they’re the pandemic’s economic frontline – expected to still provide without the attention and support looking out for their needs and success. Women should not apologize for taking their chance and trying to build something better for themselves and their families – we should be lifting them up, not squashing them.
Stand Up for Women and Choose Change
While the pandemic’s economic impacts continue to affect our communities (and will do so for the foreseeable future), what is crystal clear is that women are bearing the brunt of the burden as moms, employees, and entrepreneurs. Designing a life of flexible work or entrepreneurship might arise due to difficult circumstances, but it could prove to be a life-changer with the right resources and support. It’s a path I took, and I think that women shouldn’t feel the need to be modest or muted about choosing to make their way.
I encourage women to embrace all the positives that starting your own business can give – and not to settle if you run into sexism or nay-sayers. An unapologetic feminist keeps searching, brainstorming, and charging for what she knows in her gut is right. And as a fellow working mom, I will happily support you and invite you to share your story.
And for the men and the other people in power out there, I ask you to think about the undeniable results of having women hold seats at your leadership tables and ask you – what are you waiting for? Are you going to stand up and steer meaningful change, or are you going to watch your competitors beat you to it?