The Coalition is ignoring women-run businesses

There are two reasons why women won’t get the startup support they need in this slimmed down, post-QUANGO environment. Firstly, the focus for government support will be the growing business. Secondly, many of the soon-to-be redundant women will come from the public sector – a culture where the concept of individual enterprise is somewhat alien.

Now, some of you got very cross when I last wrote about the support needed for women so, to save you time, I invite you to consider the following: research (for instance, http://www.deltaeconomics.com/COGS/) shows that women (on the whole) operate differently from men. If this government wants inclusivity for this brave new enterprise world, it needs to take these findings on board:

  • The past two years has seen increasing numbers of women setting up as self employed and in micro businesses. Many of them have received help from Business Link.
  • When women access support, they want someone who empathises with their circumstances and style; they don’t want “off the shelf” advice or advisers (who are often male and “don’t get it”).
  • Women do not grow businesses as fast as men, and they are more likely to cease trading than men (although actual failure rates are pretty much the same for both).
  • Self employed, home working is booming and women are the fastest growing element.
  • Women are increasingly part of the direct selling agency and franchising phenomena.
  • Despite the fact that girls do well at technology in schools, far fewer women set up technology-led businesses than men.
  • Women (and probably men, too) from more deprived areas need experienced mentoring in order to flourish in self employment.
This is acknowledging difference. It’s not being patronising.

So when the government talks about targeting growth and hi-technology businesses (admirable aims), it is not taking account the sole traders and prospective self-employed women at grass-roots level (where the majority of female-led start-ups are). It has yet to come up with policy that recognises these different needs of women.

It has been forecast that half a million people currently working in the public sector will lose their jobs and it looks likely that the majority will be women. I don’t wish to slur the public sector as, undoubtedly, there will be some successful businesses and social enterprises that rise from this process. But typically, women in this sector are either employed in low-skilled, low-paid jobs, or in community-focussed professions.

The culture of the public sector is typically bureaucratic and supportive, some might say cosy. It doesn’t immediately conjure up an image of the financially savvy, can-do entrepreneur. While many women cite flexibility as the motivation to work for themselves, they often get a nasty shock as the working hours rack up. A survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that female members worked, on average, 48 hours a week. There is no phoning in sick when your children are ill.

We now have more information about Business Link’s future (to 2012) and, as of immediate effect, it will be targeting the larger, growing business. The sole trader and micro start-up will be left with an online service and no tailored advice or training. The newly announced Local Enterprise Partnerships are a totally unknown (and currently unfunded) quantity. The British Library Business and IP Centre is London based at the moment and resourcing for any expansion is uncertain.

Funding for new business and self employment is an investment and has immediate gains in keeping the unemployment bill down. Targeting only the larger business is short sighted and discriminatory and the government should reconsider its approach to enterprise support.

Sandra Hewett is a business coach. Her book, A Woman’s Guide to Working for Herself, published by How to Books, is now available.

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