In theory, launching a business is one way for women to escape gender discrimination. But a survey by 99designs, an online graphic design marketplace, found that female entrepreneurs still face some formidable challenges.
It’s more difficult to raise startup funds, the survey found, plus they have fewer employees and tend to be older than their male counterparts — over 35 for women, under 35 for men — when they start their businesses. And, fewer women said that they “always” wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Societal conditioning and, to some degree, biology are part of the challenge, said Rena Shanawani, an entrepreneur and executive director of the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship Corp. in Chatham, a nonprofit organization that provides women with business education and financial literacy programs. “Women entrepreneurs have to manage work-life balance issues that men generally don’t have to, or at least not to the same extent. Women prioritize family and other domestic issues, and are usually the primary caregiver for their family. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s a condition that really hasn’t changed much over the years.”
Despite a supportive husband and her own awareness, Shanawani — a Cornell University graduate who studied biology and earned a master’s degree in health science from Johns Hopkins University before going on to develop her own consulting practice for nonprofits — experienced some of these conditions. “Around 2012, I fell victim to my own fears,” she recounted. “When I started my consulting business I had just moved back to the U.S. — after working with the United Nations and as CEO of a micro-entrepreneurial organization in Syria for about a decade — and I had a defeatist attitude about moving my own business ahead.”
Now, after spending a few years at the helm of WCEC, she said, “If I did it all over again with the knowledge I have now, I would have bulldozed through my fears and made something more of my business.”
Shanawani added she’s met “many women entrepreneurs” who similarly felt trapped by their own fears, and she thinks to some degree they be hardwired that way. “Based on research that I’ve read, there’s a biochemical component to this. Some studies, for example, show that transgender women who are transitioning and receive male hormones find their general fear is minimized and they feel much more confident. The reports are still anecdotal at this point but I expect hard data to be developed in the near future.”
These are only obstacles, not roadblocks, according to Shanawani. “Women shouldn’t be afraid of success,” she said. “They can go to WCEC or other local business development centers that offer educational programs, consulting services and support groups. Surrounding yourself with knowledgeable, successful people can make a big difference.”
Even when they don’t directly experience discrimination, women are often reminded that they’re different. Before Dotcom Distribution CEO and Co-founder Maria Haggerty helped launch her logistics firm — which provides packaging, fulfillment, warehousing, freight management and other services — she was CFO of a New York City-based video production, licensing and distribution company.
“My boss there, Bill Follett — who eventually was one of the co-founders of Dotcom Distribution — treated me fairly and helped shield me from gender discrimination,” she said. “He didn’t look at me as a girl, but as someone who understands numbers. Still, when I told him I was pregnant with my second daughter and I’d be taking a two-month leave, his reaction was ‘oh s--t!’ instead of congratulations. By the way, I ended up taking only three weeks off.”
Sometimes, Haggerty said, the pressures that society places on women can make them turn on each other. “I started my career at the accounting and consulting firm Arthur Andersen, and in 1988 I transferred from the Houston office to the New York one as a senior auditor. We routinely worked on weekends, but one day I told my boss that I could come in Saturday but not Sunday, since it was my daughter’s first birthday.”
Her boss, a young woman on the fast track who was married with no children, pushed hard against that and harried Haggerty about missing the workday.
“We had to prove ourselves, but sometimes I think that made some of us harder on other women,” she added. “There was no sense of sisterhood. I resisted, though, and didn’t come in that Sunday.”
That kind of attitude isn’t acceptable at Dotcom, which has about 75 full-time professionals and up to 600 associates during peak periods working on warehousing and distribution, picking products and processing and loading and orders, Haggerty said. “A lot of moms and dads work here, and I make it a point to tell them the days are long but the years are short, so they shouldn’t miss this time with their kids. They have to get their work done, but they can take family time and still be productive.”
The 99designs survey resonated with Holly Kaplansky, a business owner and president of New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners, a statewide advocacy organization. A longtime corporate marketing professional who worked at companies such as Doubleday Book Clubs and Kraft Foods, Kaplansky was in her 40s when she decided to go out on her own more than a decade ago and buy a Minuteman Press franchise in Newark.
“I funded it with own savings,” she recalled. “I never thought about going out and raising the funds. That’s how many women are raised — we’re supposed to take care of everything and not ask for assistance. That’s part of the reason I bought a franchise, since the infrastructure is already there.”
Even today, she added, many women tend to find it tougher than men to engage in the small talk that’s the bread and butter of sales. “Guys are used to schmoozing and playing sports and that leads to bonding that in turn can lead to business connections. When I’m at a networking event and the guys are talking about a ballgame, I find I can’t join the conversation as easily. Statistics I’ve seen indicate that women-owned businesses usually bring in a fraction of the sales that male-owned ones do. But women business owners aren’t just complaining about it; they’re networking and trying to change things.”
NJAWBO has backed legislation for government set-asides and other initiatives designed to “level the playing field,” but Kaplansky said that’s not the only solution. “First you have to measure and report on the discrepancies. Then you have to improve the educational process so more women are encouraged to go into business, and then you have to reinforce that concept. I’ve seen some improvements, but I also see setbacks, so after more than a decade I’m not very encouraged.”
Perhaps the situation for women entrepreneurs will improve when more people adopt the perspective of Dotcom CEO Haggerty: “I don’t care about gender or other physical attributes,” she said. “I just want the best and the brightest people. If you’re kind, smart, and can do the job, I want you on my team.”