I used to think that International Women’s Day wasn’t important. In fact I didn’t really think about it at all. Now it is one of the most important days in my calendar. It means a huge amount to me personally, politically and professionally. It is not just a token day. It matters. It matters because we have come so far and yet still have so far to go. We are still fighting for equal representation in senior positions, for equal pay and for equal opportunities. As a woman, as a mother, as a female entrepreneur, business owner and employer I want to play my part in that fight.
My parents were both deeply political and committed feminists. My father did the housework my mother changed the lightbulbs. She thought that stopping me (her only daughter) doing household chores was a political act. She believed that if I wasn’t bogged down in housework, like the women of her generation, then I would have a better chance of reaching my full potential. My father would read out the achievements of great women at the dinner table at night and then later when we met for Sunday lunch. In 2014 when the Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzahani became the first woman to win the Field’s medal for mathematics he cried. When I was young he took me fossil hunting and taught me about Mary Anning who, despite her lack of education, became the first, great palaeontologist. He read Mrs Dalloway and a Room of One’s Own and took me to Virginia Woolf’s house in Rodmell. Both my parents worked hard to show me female role models. They celebrated female achievement from Indira Gandhi to Dame Anita Roddick and ensured that I believed that women can have political and financial success in their own right. They believed in the power of role models.
What is so sad is that today, three decades later, we need them every bit as much as we did then if not more. Fewer than one in five small and medium size businesses in the U.K. are led by women. Whilst women outnumber men by over a million in population there are twice as many male entrepreneurs as women. Women have to overcome cultural, financial and practical barriers if they want to start a business. Research by the Unilever Foundry shows that:
• Only 17% of startups are founded by women
• 39% of female founders frequently encountered sexism while running their startup
• 42% of women think gender discrimination will stay the same as they scale up
What’s more, once the first hurdle has been overcome these pioneers have to deal with male dominated decision makers at banks, private equity houses and VCs who are less inclined to invest in female entrepreneurs. The Entrepreneurs Network says that men are 86% more likely to secure funding than women and that just 9% of startup funding goes to female led businesses.
So how can International Women’s Day help? Just this morning I saw one great example. One of our press team, Emily, was talking to the booker at Radio 5 Live about a slot for me to talk about female entrepreneurship and she said, “I’ve been deluged by interesting women bosses, so I’m going to use all these new contacts to make sure we get more women on air across the board.” Bingo. Female role models on air on Radio Five Live more often. Hurrah. Multiply this by every media outlet across the globe and suddenly we have more brilliant, visible women talking business and that is most definitely what we need more of.
I have a ten year old daughter. Statistically she is three times less likely to start her own business than my son is. It makes me want to cry and shout and rage. Brilliant, visible, female role models will help us change the story. If you are in a position of power in the media, in banking, in life, try to make every, single day International Women’s Day and promote the brilliant women around you at every opportunity.
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