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What’s really happening with women in small business

When recent research crossed our desks suggesting that there are a lot less women in business than you’d think, Dynamic Business decided to find out what’s happening with women in the Australian small business space. 

Recent research, entitled Meeting the future of work, written by John Blackwell and released by Regus, states that by 2015, 70 percent of graduates worldwide will be female. However, after interviewing 25,000 professionals, only 72 percent of the worldwide workforce over 35 is female. This suggests that currently men dominate management positions.

While this figure doesn’t quite accurately depict Australian women’s participation in the workforce overall (more like 59 percent across all age groups according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics), it is an alarmingly low figure for such a large survey as this.


But is it an accurate measurement of the representation of women in small business in Australia? While 2006 ABS figures suggest that around 31.5 percent of small business operators are female, that figure has most likely risen in the last six years. The Australian Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry has done its own research into women entrepreneurs and business owners. The AWCCI Issues Paper, Collection of sex desegregated data and the procurement of contracts for women business owners in Australia, states “More than 104 million women in 59 economies started and managed new business ventures in 2010.” Coupled with World Bank statistics, as reported by AWCCI, which state that “women own between 25 percent and 50 percent of all private businesses around the world,” if worldwide figures are this positive, Australian figures are likely to also be on the rise.

However there has been a distinct lack of research in this area in Australia to really narrow down the up-to-date numbers of how many women are working in and owning small businesses. Despite the contribution that female small business owners make, often they are neglected in legislation and associated research. The new Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill 2012 that’s currently before the Senate requires that only workplaces of 100 or more employees are required to report on their gender split. Equal representation aside, this means that the numbers for small business gender split won’t be known.

Suzi Dafnis, community director of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, agrees that small business seems to be neglected. “I don’t know if anyone asks that [about the gender split] because it seems to be, for whatever reason, a big business issue. I guess that’s where it becomes more noticeable.”

Yolanda Vega, CEO of the AWCCI, believes that more needs to be done. “Governments at all levels must start collecting sex-disaggregated data regarding the procurement of Government contracts. We also need an agenda. This Government has signed the APEC Declaration and the Pacific Leaders Gender Equality Declaration and has given away millions of dollars to promote equality elsewhere while here at home women are struggling for equality. We need to stop pointing the finger and look in the mirror because SMEs here are suffering and women are being ignored.”

With more research, issues regarding women in small business, including hot topics such as flexible working arrangements, can be better addressed, as the AWCCI Issues paper reads: “The scarce availability of reliable and valid data has always been one of the key obstacles to understanding the challenges specific to women’s entrepreneurship and their impact on economic growth. This issue remains the same as it has for many years and it is now time to address it.”

Issues for women in small business

In the experience of Sharon Williams, Taurus Marketing CEO and commentator on small business, women tend to flock to the SMB space. “On the whole women are the ones starting small businesses because they’re juggling children or they’re juggling work life balance.”

Moving into small business may be an option for women seeking a better work/life balance, but it also may be an option for women seeking to climb the ladder faster. “There are lots of women making it to the top in the corporate world,” says Williams, “So it is possible. But on the whole we’re dominated more by the male gender. And certainly in small business you get the chance that if you’re the founder, or CEO, to be the boss.”

Small business is also seen as being the place where women are more likely to find flexible arrangements. “We are seeing more and more small business owners using outsourcing to fill roles (both temporary and permanent, such as virtual assistants). “The women filling these roles are finding ideal flexible solutions through being remote workers and setting when they work, what type of work they do and for whom,” says Dafnis.

While she believes that the representation of women in small business is quite strong, she says that women are still tending towards industries that are traditionally female dominant. “I’d like to see more female engineers, or more women working in construction, more women take up those high paying roles in IT that are still very male dominant.”

Encouraging more women to promote equal pay, equal representation and more flexibility in the workplace is a crucial issue and particularly in small businesses where reporting isn’t done and Government overseeing isn’t enforced. However small businesses in Australia do tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing new ways of working. “The way that we’re working has changed. There are so many different models now of how people do work. But my gut feeling is that some of those changes are going to be seen in small business before they’re seen in big business,” Dafnis suggests.

What’s to come

“There are nearly six million formal, women-owned small businesses in East Asia. And in economies like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, women-owned businesses are increasing and growing at a fast rate.” This comment, from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, adds fuel to the positive impression that more and more women, around the world, are taking on small businesses.

Women still have fights to fight in many spheres of business, including important issues such as equal pay and equal representation on corporate boards. There also needs to be more research into this area in order that Government and legislative bodies can better understand the situation of women in small business in Australia. However it does seem that in small business around the world, women are doing better than it might be popularly thought. In fact, Vega says, “In the USA approximately 50 percent of SMEs are owned by women, in the UK it’s under 30 percent, China around 35 percent, Latin America around 38 percent (average) and in Australia it’s around 40 percent. We are going down a similar road to the USA where the number of women business owners is increasing in unprecedented numbers.”

As Hilary Clinton said in her remarks at the APEC Women and the Economy Forum earlier this year, “bringing more women into the workforce spurs innovation, increases productivity, and grows economies. Families have more money to spend. Businesses expand their consumer base and increase their profits. In short, when women participate more fully in their economies, everyone benefits.”

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Rhiannon Sawyer

Rhiannon Sawyer

[NB: Rhiannon Sawyer no longer works for Dynamic Business]. Rhiannon Sawyer is the editor for Dynamic Business online. She also looks after online content for Dynamic Export. She loves writing business profiles and is fascinated by the growing world of homegrown online businesses and how so many people can make money in their pyjamas.

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