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Looking for confidence? Talk to a woman in business

It’s official, female business owners are more confident than their male counterparts, and it shows in the nature of their focus and planning. Here’s a look at the other areas women in business are forging ahead.

In 2011 the Sage Business Index described women as “cautious pragmatists”. The study of more than 500 Australian business owners and managers found that women were more likely than men to plan and invest for business growth even though they remained doubtful about the prospects for Australia’s economic recovery in the year ahead.

Twelve months on, the latest Sage Business Index has confirmed that gender differences continue to make a difference to management attitudes and priorities but this time, the situation has reversed. Women have become more confident than their male counterparts and it shows in the nature of their focus and planning.

Women forge ahead

The Sage Business Index 2012 found that more women (39 percent) than men (35 percent) are confident about the year ahead, while twice as many men (42 percent) as women (21 percent) say they feel less confident than they did twelve months ago.

Across all businesses there is a greater pessimism regarding Australia’s economic recovery in 2012. Just one fifth of all businesses believe that the domestic economy is recovering while over four in ten state that the economy has declined in the past twelve months. In addition, around nine in ten business owners – regardless of gender – believe that the domestic economy will have a detrimental effect on the future growth of their businesses.

This concern about the economy has led almost six in ten of the participating male business owners to defer significant business decisions during the past year. In contrast, only one third of women express the same level of concern or admit to deferring significant business decisions. At large, men, it appears, are trying to wait out the perceived downturn while by far the majority of women are determined to keep pushing forward.

Better staff planning

One area of business where women and men are equally likely to delay a decision is that of human resources. One quarter of all businesses state they have deferred hiring new staff and a further one quarter have deferred pay rises within the past twelve months. However, overall, women appear to be more organised in their management of staff, are more likely to put in place formal staff plans and as a result appear less likely to draw on the services of contractors, part timers or older employees to fill gaps in their staffing.

Stronger focus on sales

Looking ahead, women anticipate that their biggest business challenges in 2012 will include rising costs, cashflow management and increased competition. As a result, many are concentrating their efforts on sales and other activities that will contribute to revenue growth.

Asked to prioritise areas of the business they would invest in should additional budget become available, women are almost uniformly split in their desire to fund marketing, sales, technology and a web presence. This more even-handed approach is a major change from 2011 when technology and the web dominated, and marketing and sales languished near the bottom of the priority list.

The change is not surprising. With competition growing, people are finding they have to work much harder for orders and no company can afford to take sales for granted. Marketing, due to its direct link to revenue, has also stepped up a notch.

Technology aware

Even women’s interest in technology shows a sales bent. The Sage Business Index found that women are taking a lead in the adoption of social networking as a channel for generating business demand and that they are far more engaged than males with social networking, using it as a business tool on a number of different levels. They are more likely to believe social networking can be used for business generation and much more likely to understand how to effectively use it to promote their business. Almost half of female business owners have a Facebook page, twice as many as all businesses. Among this group, staggeringly more than nine in ten actively use these pages to communicate with customers.

It’s a similar story with Twitter. Women are two-and-a-half times more likely to own a Twitter account and three quarters of those with an account state they conduct active communication with customers.

As competition increases social networking is set to become an increasingly important business communication and sales tool but it will require continued, active involvement. Women have been very fast to realise this and right now, they are doing their best to capitalise on their early lead.

Where to from here?

It would be nice to think that women have got it right – that their lack of confidence in the economy last year was merited and now, in 2012, things are about to pick up. After all, many of the indicators are good. In May, Australia received the most positive economic forecast out of all OECD countries and in early June we saw the release of unexpectedly good economic growth and low unemployment figures.

Much of the current pessimism about the economy is being driven by fear, gut feel and anecdotal evidence. Perhaps some focus, a more upbeat approach and a little positive business planning can help to imbue greater confidence in the market. Wouldn’t that be a great outcome?