Thursday, 25 January 2007

In celebration of National Women’s Enterprise Day

Did you know that yesterday was National Women’s Enterprise Day? Do you care? According to a report by the BBC News it is important because the government wants more women to start their own businesses.

Apparently we (women) are lagging behind the USA quite substantially, to the point where the U.K. would have 750,000 more businesses if it kept pace with our US counterparts; a statistic put forward by Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson.

Significantly, the BBC News report goes on to say that the women’s enterprise group Prowess wants the government to prioritise the 18-24 age group, since they have been found to be the least entrepreneurial, according to a report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). Another BBC News report on Monday 11th September 2006, said that local education authorities will be required to avoid gender stereotyping, when advising schoolgirls about possible career choices.

I have worked in the USA, some 18 years ago admittedly and I have been 18-24, many moons ago. On the first point, it strikes me that the USA is far more able to accommodate entrepreneurs – both male and female into its social structure far easier than we are. The USA has been built on a nation of people following the American Dream – whatever that might be and whatever it takes to get there - get there they will. Over here we seem to be only just getting around to the idea that sales and marketing are real professions and not just a job that used car sales people do. It seems to me that the USA does not have the ‘baggage’ associated with gender stereotyping that we do. I remember seeing female road sweepers and airline pilots even back then. On top of that, Americans just seem to be more positive about their work than we do – some might say they are generally more positive – others might say nauseatingly so.

Not only that, the service economy over there just makes things much easier for women to work – when I lived there, and this was in the 80’s, I was amazed to find it cost $1 to get a shirt dry-cleaned and only marginally more to get it delivered back to your office. There are places to park (Ok maybe not in New York, but this was Silicon valley, California) when you go for a meeting or take a client to dinner and if not there was always valet parking; making the whole experience far less stress inducing. There were even affordable shoe shine counters at local airports for those business commuters who had forgotten or didn’t have time to clean their shoes that morning. I could go on…

Now on the topic of the 18-24 age group, I am again perplexed by this. According to demographic trends, we along with most other developed countries are ageing as a population thanks to the baby boom generation. According to a report issued by the House of Lords, Select Committee on Economic Affairs, printed on 5th November 2003 and titled ‘Aspects of an ageing population’, the Government Actuary’s Department projects that by 2050, the 65+ age group will represent 24.4 per cent of the total UK population. It is a very good idea to offer training for young women, but why discriminate either positively or negatively? Has anyone seen any initiatives for ageing entrepreneurs?

Whilst I certainly welcome flexible working, time-share and more crèche facilities at the workplace, I really do think the UK has a long way to go to alter the perceptions surrounding part-time work, often conducted by women. Another BBC News article on Thursday 5 January headlined: ‘Gender equality is decades away’, goes on to report that even The Equal Opportunities Commission says the increase in the number of women in politics is very low, and that only 10% of senior posts in large firms are held by women. Bridget recently met Mona Larsen-Asp, who leads the Department of Policy Promotion at the Norwegian Equality and Anti-discrimination Commission; in Norway, the government has passed legislation requiring all public sector and large commercial organisations to have at least 40% female representation on their managing board. Rather than see this as restrictive, companies are developing innovative ways of enabling women to take up these top leadership positions.

It seems that it is likely to take some time before we in the UK fully acknowledge that professional careers may advance through the application of flexible working practices and society may flourish through a better work:life balance – whatever gender, whether employed or self-employed and whatever age.

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