INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, which falls on Monday, will be a bittersweet occasion for many women in business. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit women disproportionately hard, with studies showing that female-led businesses are more likely to have been adversely affected by restrictions, with women more likely to have had to give up career ambitions in order to home-school children or take on caring responsibilities.
Leading academics from the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group (WEPG) say that women running businesses have faced ‘acute pressures’ during Covid-19.
‘We know that women tend to trade in sectors that do more face-to-face work — for example, as carers, in hospitality and tourism or as beauticians — and that means their trade is only coming back slowly and is vulnerable to local lockdowns,’ says Professor Julia Rouse, co-chair of the WEPG and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Manchester Metropolitan University.
‘Add to this school and nursery closures, and the threat of “bubbles” and consequently support networks bursting when these reopen fully, and you can see the scale of the challenge.’
As we begin to consider how businesses will fare coming out of lockdown, we asked six women how they feel their gender impacts on their businesses, and what they feel the impact of the pandemic has been on women’s career prospects.
While some women are newer entrepreneurs, others experienced breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ several decades ago. Here’s what they have to say...
‘I decided I would never compromise who I felt I wanted to be’
WELL-KNOWN as one half of the Trinny and Susannah duo, hosts of 1990s clothing show What Not To Wear, Trinny (pictured top) has more recently founded global beauty brand Trinny London.
‘International Women’s Day is a time to highlight and address things,’ she says.
After an early attempt at commodities training, when she felt she needed to dress like a man to fit in, Trinny says she ‘made an unconscious decision that I would never compromise who I felt I wanted to be as a woman in my work environment’.
She says that women are still too often told not to stand out, to ‘not be a tall poppy’.
‘I want to challenge that. International Women’s Day is about challenge and change. It is about challenging your competence level to feel comfortable to stand out.’
Trinny says that the pandemic has had many different impacts on women in business, but while it has been hugely difficult for many, it has also given some an opportunity to think about doing something new, because difficult situations can be a catalyst for change.
‘I started Trinny London when circumstances were really against me, on an emotional level, financial level, lots of levels,’ she says.
She encourages women who want to become entrepreneurs to reach out to others for help.
‘I think women can be a little bit more reticent about reaching out and getting help than men, but with social media we really are so connected to those who can help us.’
‘Don’t let anyone else derail your plan’
BRITISH Paralympian swimmer Liz Johnson was born with cerebral palsy. She is one of a select few to have won gold medals in the Paralympics, World Championships and European Championships.
She left sport behind to set up a disability-led employment agency, The Ability People and set up a new venture, Podium, during the first lockdown. Podium is a jobs marketplace designed specifically for disabled freelancers. ‘During lockdown, once I got over the initial craziness of stopping and just abruptly working from home I’ve had the gift of being able to reassess what is important to me,’ Liz says.
She says that she set up Podium because of the effect the pandemic was having on the freelance workforce, which contains so many people with disabilities. With so much work becoming remote, she reasons, there are opportunities for those freelancers who can work from home. ‘It’s often easier to function as a freelancer if you have disabilities,’ she says.
For her, she says, IWD is about celebrating powerful women of all types but that for her personally, discrimination due to her disability has been far more of an issue.
‘I was a tomboy, and I used to play football with the boys, but I think they were just so surprised that I could coordinate myself enough to kick a football that no one ever mentioned that,’ she says.
For women wanting to go into running their own business, she has some encouragement. ‘Successes come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t let anyone else derail your plan or tell you something is impossible. You might need help, but you can be anyone you want to be.’
‘I’ll celebrate anything — but I’ve never focused on gender’
Hayley Parsons OBE
HAYLEY is one of the UK’s most successful businesswomen, having founded comparison site GoCompare from her kitchen table. She sold the company in 2014 for £190m and now works supporting entrepreneurship in Wales and elsewhere.
‘I will celebrate anything, me, but I have never been overly focused on the gender piece,’ she says.
‘I am surrounded by great men and great women.’
Hayley has two boys, 11 and 18, and her husband took on a house husband role when she was starting the business, which she says allowed her to focus on her role at GoCompare.
‘I think it was difficult for him at times, because it wasn’t what people expected,’ she says. Now, though, when he is taking her younger son to school, she says that dads at the gate are far more common and they have their own social scene, meeting for a beer or lunch ‘far more than the women’.
Hayley believes that the pandemic has been hard on working men and women. ‘People have supported each other more and tried to help, and team spirit has helped people to come through.’
In terms of career advice, she says that she has never thought about her gender in terms of how it affects her job.
‘I’ve never thought, I didn’t get that job because I was a woman,’ she says. ‘I work in a really male-dominated environment, but they are great people and I’m not any different around them. Just be true to yourself and don’t be any different.’
‘Mum was my cheerleader and has been an inspiration’
INSPIRED by a mother who was an entrepreneur herself, Rebecca founded business and marketing support services company Get Ahead in 2010.
‘My mum, Angela, set up a tutoring agency in the early 1970s, so I always remember her having her own business,’ she says. ‘It meant she was around after school but worked in the evenings. As a daughter I found it really inspiring and it led me to want to set up my own business, too.
‘With three teenage daughters of my own, IWD is really important to me.’
Rebecca says that, when her mother was younger, being a female entrepreneur was much less usual. ‘Now she’s my cheerleader and has really inspired me.’
‘I try to give agency to women who don’t have it’
ANTOINETTE founded Just Helpers, which she describes as an ethical cleaning agency, six years ago. The London business now has a turnover of £1m and was inspired by her anti-people trafficking work.
The business pays its cleaners at least the London Living Wage, but also mentors colleagues to rise through the ranks to become supervisors and managers. Antoinette herself is a former cleaner. ‘Cleaning started as a side hustle,’ Antoinette explains. ‘I thought it would be a flexible and fluid way to make money but I realised how broken the system was and how abusive it was to women. So I founded Just Helpers — which is as much a campaigning organisation as a cleaning agency — to use every power I’ve got to give agency to women who don’t have it.’
She also suggests that the pandemic has made life for women ‘significantly worse’ — with career plans put on hold and women taking the brunt of caring responsibilities.
‘Even among my management team, people are really struggling to juggle childcare and stress levels are high. Even when the woman is the main earner she’s often doing the childcare as well.’
Antoinette adds that the cleaning industry needs to be better regulated, and that there needs to be education about ‘what paying £10 an hour for a cleaner really means’.
This International Women’s Day, Antoinette says, she wants people to reflect on how the pandemic is changing the gender balance for the worse — and what can be done about it.
‘I felt I had to be like a man to succeed’
MARIA is the founder and chair of the Nike Foundation and founder of The Girl Effect, a charity launched in September 2015 aimed at helping girls to lift their communities out of poverty.
She says that perceptions of women have changed since she first started the Nike Foundation back in 2004, but that the pandemic has made life far worse for women in many areas of the world. Without a doubt, this is a fact that certainly should not be ignored this International Women’s Day. ‘When I started work I felt I had to be like a man in order to succeed,’ she says.
‘Women would wear these horrible scarves with blazers to look like a female version of a man.
‘It is different today in that there is a shift in expectations and opportunities.’
However, Maria believes that women will still face prejudice and struggle to get their voices heard.
‘I do recommend using humour to diffuse situations,’ she says.
Maria suggests that the pandemic has been an ‘opportunity for women who are abused to be hidden away at home’ [by their abusers] and that it is really important to speak out against this — and to be aware of the effects that the coronavirus situation has had on working women.
Meanwhile, for female would-be entrepreneurs, she has some further advice. ‘Be prepared to work incredibly hard,’ Maria says.
She continues. ‘Don’t think it is going to be easy or you will be quickly discouraged.
‘Take advantage of the support of other women — there’s a real awareness of supporting women-led businesses after coronavirus — and have confidence. Believe in your ideas.
‘With whatever you are doing take one step at a time.
‘If you say, “Just one more thing, one more thing,” eventually you will end up with a whole pile of things.’