A recent report on American business states that women lead only 5% of large listed companies, and 30% of all companies. That is a huge disparity in a supposedly ‘equal opportunities’ environment! Closer to home, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report shows that in South Africa, men are 1.6 times more likely to succeed as business owners than women.
This shocking local statistic appears to be related to low levels in self-belief and other cultural factors, and exists despite numerous attempts by Government to bring more women into the business world through affirmative action, BEE and other transformation initiatives.
As the owner of a business that is dedicated to supporting the growth of entrepreneurs, and a single mother of three girls myself, the reasons for this, and more importantly the possible solutions, have kept me awake many nights. Having recently read “Lean-in” – the best-selling book by Sheryl Sandberg- I am even more conscious that despite our equal skills and opportunities, it is often us women who hold ourselves back.
What holds women back?
The problem of gender inequality and gender violence is well documented in South Africa – and this in itself is enough to reduce the self-confidence and self-belief of women. However, it is only when travelling outside the main centres that one sees the broader effects of this inequality – where girl children are pulled out of school at a young age to help around the house, and education of girls is seen as a waste of time, as they will invariably marry young and/ or be pregnant by the age of 16 or 17.
This is certainly not only a South African problem. I recall being shocked at the low levels of schooling amongst rural girl children in my native Zambia, where many girls are removed from school and married off as young as 13. Given the huge numbers of women in Africa who end up as single mothers, what chance have these young women got of supporting their children in any meaningful way, when they can barely read or write themselves?
I recall a similar experience in Mpumalanga some years ago. While providing business skills training as part of an economic development programme we were implementing, I discovered that almost half of the women present were functionally illiterate – one young lady could hardly hold a pen to place a cross where her signature should go. Yet this woman was bright, intelligent and capable – on the face of it, far more capable than her brother sitting on the opposite side of the room, who had been educated to Matric.
Of course part of this equation is the effect of culture. Patriarchal cultures which entrench the concept of women as second class citizens, should not be surprised when these same women fail as entrepreneurs!
But it’s not just culture or lack of education that holds women entrepreneurs back – and for this I am a case in point. I was raised as almost an equal in a family of boys, and am blessed with a post-graduate education – so from a self-belief, cultural and skills perspective I have no room to complain. Yet despite this, as a woman I have no doubt that I have had to face challenges from which the average man is shielded.
Firstly, I have no wife at home to care for the children, do the shopping, cleaning, laundry – I do that. Secondly and possibly most significant, I care for everyone else too – often both financially and emotionally – my mother, my staff, my kids, my community.
I am by no means the outlier in this statistic – many, if not most women entrepreneurs are wives and mothers who run the business with one hand and the world with the other. The more rural the environment, the tougher the task.
So within this reality, how can we help more women rise to find independence, wealth, satisfaction and success as entrepreneurs? Is it even possible?
My experience in running enterprise development programmes has seen some wonderfully inspiring examples of successful women entrepreneurs, proving that with the appropriate opportunities women can certainly compete, if not surpass men as entrepreneurs, even rural women. One of my favourite success stories is the Inina Craft Cooperative from Eshowe in KZN. This group of 150 Zulu mothers and grandmothers, most of whom are illiterate and have little or no formal education, have created a thriving business using the traditional weaving, beading and handcraft skills within their community. Inina is efficiently managed by local women, for the benefit of local women.
Eunice Mlotywa of Iliwa, based in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, has single-handedly built a highly successful sewing and beading business, and has branched out into other gaps in the market, selling airtime and electricity to the community and supplying uniforms for most of the schools in the area. Her entrepreneurial savvy has seen her visit Norway three times, Germany, Holland and Namibia. On top of all this, Eunice somehow finds the time to manage a feeding scheme for the aged, run a community centre and be a mother to two young men.
Many women are pushed into entrepreneurship through necessity – usually when husbands depart or pass away, leaving them to care for and support a family single-handedly.
So, while the data may show that men are 1.6 times more likely to succeed as entrepreneurs in South Africa, perhaps the real measure of success should not simply be the number of men or women in business, but the impact that their success has. If we look closely at the wider benefits that women in business create I think the challenge is on – men, you try succeeding with three children on your lap and the Nanny off work for the week….