Recently I was invited to be part of a panel to discuss the topic of female entrepreneurship at one of Bangkok’s largest entrepreneur networking groups. Fundamentally, the theme was ‘Is it a good idea to make a conscious difference between female entrepreneurs and male entrepreneurs or does it create more bad than good?’
The women-only panel was a mix of 5 entrepreneurs and professionals, including two with experience hosting women-focused events (Nicky Jones-Crossley that hosted Business in Heels Bangkok for two years and myself). The audience was probably 60-65% female.
I’d like to share with you what we discussed and my views on it.
Is there a stereotype about Female Entrepreneurs?
Thailand has a very dynamic women-led business sector. There are many successful businesses owned and run by women so people are used to leading women entrepreneurs at least in the more traditional female sectors, such as F&B.
Women and men face pretty much the same issues when it comes to the main operational aspects of launching and managing their businesses – legal issues, dealing with red tape, finding talent, access to markets, etc. But many women also have to deal with an extra set of “soft barriers”, which are grounded in society’s conscious or unconscious gender biases. Some people don’t even notice them.
In my interviews with female founders, I often hear about the challenge of being taken seriously or capable enough as a young woman, particularly in traditionally male sectors including the banking sector; the difficulty of breaking in male-dominated business and investor circles and therefore the more limited access to those resources; the challenge of enforcing authority on male staff, suppliers, and contractors; and the extra pressure on the negotiating table. Above all, a key issue comes for those that have families of their own as society puts a lot of pressure on women to carry primary responsibility when it comes to household and children. Inevitably this means that women entrepreneurs end up having less time to dedicate to their businesses and as a result might grow more slowly and stay smaller than what they could achieve otherwise.
None of these challenges are deal breakers for women that are determined to have their own businesses. The women entrepreneurs that I interview are strong, resilient women and are doing well. But I think we need to be more honest about the extra time, energy, and costs that this requires from women.
Should we make a difference between Female Entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurs or should we try to and minimize it?
My answer is ‘Let’s make a difference so we can work on minimizing it’.
Let’s make a difference because the differences are there for anybody to see. There is a clear disparity in representation of women and men in leadership roles both in the business and corporate sectors. Yes, Thailand is probably one of the best countries to be a woman entrepreneur and there are similar number of men and women in business. But businesses owned and led by women are typically smaller and grow more slowly than those owned by men. The largest companies are owned and led by men. If you look at the top end of the spectrum in the Forbes Thailand’s 50 richest 2015 list, only 5 out of 50 are women and none of them founded the businesses they are involved in.
Similar things happen in the corporate sector. The percentage of women in senior executive jobs – C suite – is 25% on average globally (internal accounting firm Grant Thornton has been tracking gender diversity in business leadership for the past 10 years). Thailand is doing relatively well at 27% but it has gone down from 37% over the last decade. According to the research report, there is an increasing trend for senior women in Thailand to seek early retirement. This is to look after members of their family, especially ageing parents.
As I have mentioned before, several of the female founders I have interviewed pointed to challenges they have experienced for being women. Gender biases are still prevalent, as anywhere else in the world, and many of them are so subtle and so ingrained in society that one might not even be aware of it. Women are less encouraged to lead and to think big. There are sectors that are considered more suited for women (F&B, marketing, hospitality, beauty and wellness, and others) and others more suited for men. As a result, there are much less women than men in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), which are among the fastest growing sectors in the economy.
Not every woman entrepreneur has experienced such biases or feels there is a need to have special events or programs for women entrepreneurs. But others do and see the value and benefit of the extra support that comes with spaces tailored for women. If we want to encourage more women to dream big and aim for leadership positions, we can’t just rely on the small percentage of women that break through and make it to the top no matter what. It’s simply not happening in sufficient numbers.
Once we reach gender diversity at the top and have more women in leadership positions, there won’t be a need anymore to make a distinction between female and male entrepreneurs.
What is the goal of Female-only Networking events? How can we prevent the risk of “Reserve Discrimination”?
There is a lot of demand for female-only networking events both for professionals and entrepreneurs and this is a trend that I think it is just going to increase. Having said that, I would expect any savvy professional and entrepreneur to have different channels for networking – both formal and informal – so belonging to a female-only networking group does not mean that you shut the door to other mixed events. It’s adding to your pool of options and might serve different needs and purposes.
The Women in Business events are focused on women entrepreneurs and we only have female speakers. This is not because we promote an “us versus them” approach or we don’t think that male entrepreneurs have valuable experience to share. It is simply because we believe that women entrepreneurs bring a specific perspective and might experience certain things differently than men entrepreneurs and because women get nowhere nearly the same space at mixed gender entrepreneur events as men do.
I believe women-only networking events are important for 3 key reasons:
- Create new role models. Role models are really important because they are real examples that people can relate to. We don’t see enough examples of successful women entrepreneurs particularly from non-traditional sectors and they don’t get enough media coverage. Through our events we celebrate women entrepreneurs from diverse fields in order to inspire other women. “You can’t be what you can’t see”, said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO & LeanIn founder
- Encourage women to collaborate. The Women in Business events are a space where women entrepreneurs can share experiences, learn from each other, and build valuable connections. Traditionally there hasn’t been enough collaboration among women for several reasons and I believe that this needs to change if we want to see things improving.
- Build self-confidence and encourage women to dream BIG. This is extremely important. Women-only events offer a safe environment where it’s ok to share your experience of how being a woman might have affected your business. You do that in a safe environment with other women that most likely will have gone through similar experiences or can relate in some ways. And it’s not a place to complain or feel sorry for yourself – not at all. But it’s a place where you can be 100% honest and build strength and self-confidence from knowing that you are not the only one that has experienced that. And you learn and share views on how people deal with issues. Sometimes the “being a woman entrepreneur” never comes up but sometimes it does and people should be free to voice that safely.
What actions would you recommend to make general Business, Tech, and Networking events more attractive for women?
Definitely have more women speakers. Women might be less active in some sectors but in 2016 I can’t think of a sector where there are no women at all. So when I choose which events to attend, if I consistently see male-only panels in some networking groups, I am going to assume that they are targeting a different audience.
One Silicon Valley lawyer Ed Zimmerman made headlines last year for stating that he was not going to join all-male tech events anymore. The often-asked “what if the best qualified people are men?” question has been used to justify the status quo for decades, he said.
“That is a great way to continue to allow discrimination to persist,” he says. “It’s just not possible that 90% of the people who are qualified to be venture investors are men, so I don’t buy that argument.”