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Do women need more business support than men?

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Should women receive special treatment when receiving business advice and support? The question is debated even between women entrepreneurs, but the last few years have seen a big increase in government support and networking targeted at women, fostering the view that women benefit from an exclusive approach. What will happen in the current climate of austerity?

The last government put effort into encouraging women to start and grow their businesses, through the Women’s Enterprise Taskforce (closed in November 2009) and the Aspire fund for female-led businesses. There are two Women’s Business Centres in the UK (see here and here) and women’s networking groups have flourished.

“Women, in general, have different skills and networks to men, meaning they face different challenges,” says Simone Brummelhuis, founder of thenextwomen.com. She cites networking, approach to financing and communicating their own value as being key differences. “Women often need help understanding that it is not arrogant to tell corporates or investors how great they are.”

Rebecca Harding, managing director of Delta Economics, has conducted many recent studies into female entrepreneurship in the UK. “When starting a business, women often need different support to men, particularly in terms of scaling the business up,” she says, “but as their businesses grow and become more sustainable, they follow very similar patterns to men.”

Now, following the revelation by Real Business that Business Link is to be ended, the whole field of government support for enterprise is thrown into question. And some would argue that this will impact upon would-be women entrepreneurs more than their male counterparts.

“Women are more likely to use Business Links when they start their businesses and value the support that they get from Business Links more than men do,” explains Harding. “The demise of Business Link could result in fewer growth-oriented women’s businesses in the future unless there is something clearly in place that substitutes for the services Business Link offer.”

However, Brummelhuis disagrees. “Most of the female entrepreneurs that we follow or that come to us have not been receiving enough support or help from Business Link, so its demise won’t hurt them. Quite the contrary, they have been coming to us and to other groups, such as the British Library, for the support they haven’t been able to receive from Business Link.”

This may highlight a blind spot with the IT sector. Elizabeth Gooch, chief executive, eg solutions plc: “We haven’t had much support from Business Link. This is a handful in a bucket of water. Other people will come up behind it and close the gaps.”

Reaction from other areas has been mixed (see comments here). “Business Link was a starting point for me when thinking of setting up my own business but the advice on offer was only ever generic,” comments Nikki Geddes, founder of franchise Kiddy Cook. “The best support and guidance came from other people already in the ‘field’. Hearing about their successes and failures has got to be better for women.”

So what will be needed to close those gaps? Harding indicates there is still hope. “For a long time women’s groups have asked for a signposting function, as the myriad of different support structures can be confusing at the start up stage,” she says. “If the replacement for Business Link is a signposting service, perhaps online, then it could be very helpful.”

Sandra Hewett is a coach and author of A Women’s Guide to Working for Herself (How to Books) to be published in the autumn.

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