Ladies, get the bunting out! Praise be, for a new “ambassadors programme” is launching a search for female role models who can inspire women across Britain to get involved in enterprise. All this time, we fuzzy-headed little things weren’t lacking the finance, the backing, or a level playing field to start our own businesses. No, we were just totally uninspired by ourselves. I’m glad we’ve got to the bottom of it, because – hell – I don’t know about you, but I sure am tired of hanging out with all these vapid, unimaginative women, twiddling their thumbs in want of something to do when the baby goes to bed.
Women in enterprise is nothing new. From selling stocks to selling sex, women have known how to turn a profit since time began. There’s graffiti in Pompeii advertising the services of one particularly nubile young woman, for two donkeys. Nothing’s changed; we’ve just managed to expand our repetoir a bit. So I think it’s about time we quashed a couple of myths about women who choose to work for themselves.
Firstly, why is it always assumed that the default go-to role model for an aspirant young woman must be someone else in possession of a womb? Yes, Madeleine Albright was right, there is a special place in hell reserved for women who do not look out for other women; but any woman who’s been to a single sex school, or gone on a hen night, will know that female solidarity is great – rock on, sisters, I dig our ovary empathy and your tuneless rendition of Total Eclipse – but people solidarity is better. We need to stop with the By Women, For Women mantra; it’s good till a point, it’s like the choke on a 15 year old Fiat Uno parked on a hill – just get the damn thing going – but it’s not for the long-haul. Before long, we realise we’ve locked ourselves in fiddly little boxes and all the men are on the outside chest-bumping and being more successful, because we stopped involving them in our hopes for the future.
Don’t we have the right to inspire men, too? Throw a couple of X and Y chromosomes together, sparking off conflicts and resolutions, bitter mistakes and heady opportunities, and you’ve got yourself a veritable gender-fest. It’s almost like real life. Crazy, I know.
Secondly, I resent the pervasive and reductive assumption that female entrepreneurs only occupy themselves with typical gender-specific business ventures, like baking cakes, arranging flowers or designing saccharine, organic baby-wear. That grotesque word ‘mumtrepreneur’ evokes everything women have fought against in the struggle for equality – a frantic Mother of three squeezing every viable five minutes out of her day by baking sugar-free cup cakes in between breakfast, the school run, ballet, scouts, dinner, bath and bed, and then sitting boggle-eyed by the light of her laptop at midnight, wearily ticking off distribution orders and quelling the mounting realisation that after six months of oven-slamming endeavor she’s only made enough money to buy a cheap bottle of plonk with which to numb the pain. Is she happy? Christ, I hope so. I’d rather get the two donkeys.
So why are women endorsing this skewed picture? Why, when I read about female-led business start-ups, are they always populated with photos of grinning women with floral pinnies on? For every Sweet As Cakes, there is a Lastminute.com. Give me Martha Lane Fox any day, but give me Richard Branson too. Why, by virtue of our reproductive plumbing, will Martha have anything more pertinent to tell me than Richard? Moreover, why should she place her gender front and centre when dishing out advice; she’s an entrepreneur, it’s a deliriously neutral term in a society awash with gender-specific job titles.
StartUp Britain estimates that by 2020, one in five of us will be self-employed. That’s a lot of cup cakes. If women really are lacking inspiration, then let’s not pander to the soft-sell. Blow open the boxes, bring in the men, ask the hard questions. Find enterprise ambassadors of both sexes, across the whole panapoly of business, so that women – just like men – can try their hand at everything and anything.
Lastly, we will also do well to remember that, increasingly, ‘women in enterprise’ has become synonimous for ‘women at home’; we have become both domestic carer and worker. For every woman who finds this suits the needs of themselves and their families better – and for many this is absolutely right – it isn’t the only solution for women who need an income or want to work, as neat as it sounds. In the UK, we must still continue to pave the way for an equal billing in employment, through shared childcare, fair pay and the eradication of sexual discrimination. Not every woman wants to run her own company; many – like the ones who fill governments, and hospitals, and law courts, and schools – want to be a part of something much, much bigger.
Being the boss of you doesn’t always mean you have to bake – and sell – the cupcakes. Surely it means you get to scoff them too.