If proof was ever needed that we still had a long way to go when it comes to gender equality then all you needed to do is front up to the Regional Congress of Business and Professional Women International held in Auckland, New Zealand, over the weekend. As a keynote speaker and panelist I was primarily asked to inspire the attendees who were representatives from more than a dozen countries across the Asia Pacific. To do that I needed to take a look at the role of women in the sector we here at the EntreHub.org move in – small business, start-ups and entrepreneurs.
After we surveyed more than 2,000 small business owners we uncovered some simple truths when it came to women in business in our sector. Firstly, the vast majority of small business owners are women, secondly; women are more likely to start a business from home and thirdly; those businesses are more likely to be focused on the new economy – in other words businesses that take advantage of the shift of retail online and the shared economy such as AIRBNB.
We already know that small business plays a significant role when it comes to the back bone of many economies but what is unknown to many people is the actual role women play – and it is vast.
But, imagine this: in a world where women are the back bone of small business how is it they still face significant discrimination when it comes to actual business ownership or seeking capital to either grow a current business or start a new one? In fact, one of my fellow panelists Myrna T. Yao commented about her early days in developing her business and told the story of how she had to give one of them to her brother and it was only upon the death of her father that he finally confessed that she was better at business than her brothers.
Image: Myrna T Yao at her traditional weekend breakfast with her grandchildren
Myrna’s story is inspirational. Starting out with no support she built a business empire in the Philippines and went on to become the Minister for Women. Myrna's business is a powerhouse with more than 70% of her employees being women.
The challenges women face in business and in politics should have been consigned to the dust bin decades ago but as much as we say we will act and do something about gender inequality I must admit a lot of the action to date has been more words and less action. In fact, women, like a lot of minority ethnic groups, face what some call unconscious bias. Take for a moment a women sitting in front of a man who is looking to recruit a new team leader. As the interview goes she explains she is returning to the workforce after just having had a baby. Now, take a look at the cartoon below. The truth is we have bias that is clear and explicit and then we have the unconscious type that can be all the more damming because as this woman is turned down for a job she may never know the reason why – yet she was still the best person for the job.
This is why we need to take a hard cold look at stripping back the bias in all of its forms and it’s not just about women getting together at conferences and trying to rally the cause – it’s about us, we men who dominate the executive management, political and business ranks that need to undergo a significant amount of attitudinal and behavioral adjustment. It is just not acceptable that we either pay lip service to the problems or simply leave the issue for another day – because the day has arrived where we must take action.
We must ensure that the constitutions of our boards carry diversity charters where we explicitly challenge ourselves to have gender equity. We should review our procurement policies to not only embrace female owned small business but use those policies to help grow and develop their businesses and we can and must do more to ensure that our recruitment practices, when outsourced, reflect the fact that as company policy we do not accept mates employing mates.
On the political side there is a growing need to ensure that women are recruited into the ranks of our representative parties. If new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can have 50% gender equity in his cabinet from the beginning then the tired old excuses often given by men are what they are – nonsense. I can tell you from personal experience that there are immensely skilled and talented women who have been languishing on the back benches of political parties in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States for far too long. The fact is most of these women could do a much better job than many of the men who are in the roles now.
To the women out there I wanted to offer some insights into what you can do or continue doing. It was advice I wrote out for my god daughter Keira on how she can become a superhero:
1. Determination: remain determined and whenever someone tells you no turn it around and continue to ask why not. It actually doesn’t matter the gender, the truth is we are discouraged more often than not to do new things because we somehow have to fit within someone else’s box or convention. Remaining determined is a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs and super heroes alike!
2. Disrupt convention: conventional thinking leads to conventional worlds of both work and play – by disrupting convention you open your mind to new ideas and potential new ways of doing things. Super heroes and entrepreneurs live in worlds where innovation breeds solutions and the only way we arrive at innovation is by disrupting the conventional.
3. Lead people, don’t manage them: one of the empowering things you can do is not to manage people – instead lead them. In doing so you allow their own talents and skills to come through leaving you more time to lead by example. People follow leaders, not managers – in fact people more often despise managers and yet love leaders! Find the balance!
4. Confidence is built through knowledge: confidence is the result of knowing what you know through research, reading, absorbing information and having experiences. Wherever possible know a little something about everything and engage in conversations from a height of knowledge, not a depth of anecdote
5. Test the boundaries: we never overcome barriers by simply accepting a wall is a wall. Walls were built to be torn down and the only reason some exist longer than others is we believe it is too high to climb. Therefore gather people around you that can lift you up and, in turn, you can reach back and pull them over the wall with you. So, test the boundaries where they exist.
Men and women alike – the time for talk has come to an end and the time for action to solve gender inequality in all its forms is long overdue. Let’s take action not talk.
Matthew Tukaki is the editor of EntreHub.org and was keynote speaker at the Asia Pacific Conference of Business and Professional Women International. You can find a branch to join here
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