EDITOR'S BLOG: 'Women in business'? What do I know, I'm just a bloke

So what did you lot on Twitter have to say on the subject of 'women in business' at 8.15am? Well quite a lot, actually.

Before I show you exactly what, I should qualify I wasn't really surprised that my tweet sparked such passionate debate - I've entered the women in biz debate before and it sure does polarise opinion. So much so I've had female editorial staff nigh on refuse to write about it.

No surprise then, when I asked, 'Is this a worthy topic for discussion?' I got views as differing as:

@pushyprmummy absolutely. Think it's a very important topic... and often complex! Bring on the discussion.

@brilliantfish By making us a special case, there could be a danger of double glazing the glass ceiling?

@skinbistro Good question - I've been thinking along the same lines but 'mumpreneurs' instead. Can't decide where I stand.

'Is this a worthy topic for discussion?' is a bit of a pedestrian and tired debate, though. We can churn that one forever.

The fact there are increasing numbers of business networking groups and organisations specifically for women proves to me there's a need and desire for them whether others oppose or not. I'm more interested in why. Here's what you told me:

@LucyMThomas Massively less threatening without backslapping male vibe. Tends to be lifestyle businesses and prof services though

@TheListing Confidence/esteem? Anti-image of 'male' corporate world? Tho in my exp networking is inclusive/relaxed/friendly/supportive

@BibaJovanovic easier to communicate in business, they've got no issues, no attitude problem & don't feel intimidated.

@Ellen_Carroll I found there to be more sharing & less aggressive business card thrusting but in the main it all depends on the network.

@SnoozeShade I think it's good to have a choice available. You can do it if u want. Men have had men only biz clubs for centuries ;-)

@SnoozeShade not had any experience running a biz prior to this. Women only networking works for some people better and others don't mind

There were a few dissenting voices, as you'd expect:

@EmLeary I went to a women's biz club a few times. Socially, it was fun; business-wise, there was no benefit in being women only, IMHO.

@Kirsty_Henshaw I certainly don't x

@brilliantfish Because they're there?! I haven't but wouldn't join because it was just women anyway-would depend on what businesses were there

So if real small businesses say such groups make a difference and provide valuable, practical support for entrepreneurs, should government get behind them? Is it government's job to support 'women in business'?

@SnoozeShade I do think that women need different support sometimes. My hub has biz, I look after daughter and run biz no help w childcare

@SnoozeShade from govt to help my biz grow. I had breakdown at one point due to stress of juggling everything. Mentoring wld be helpful as well

@pushyprmummy of course the gov should care. It's the future economy and workforce they should be supporting. So much to say on this.

@skinbistro It's on the verge of an ethical debate, IMO. Gov should care for and support everyone who wants to go into biz.

@TheListing any start up shld receive support. Great to see anyone have the guts and gumption to set up-not sure women need specific support?

@TheListing Also-training such as business link seminars tend to have even m/f split. Don't think mixed support intimidates women?

So armed with lots of strong support for both the need for 'women in business' to be on the support agenda and, as suspected, a few dissenting voices packed onto one lovely Hootsuite stream I made my way to the roundtable.

Here was the line-up:

• Tanya Shirlow, Head of SMB, Microsoft UK

• Bindi Karia, VC/Emerging Business Lead, Microsoft UK and Head of BizSpark programme

• Marie-Claude Hemming, Policy Advisor at the Federation of Small Businesses

• Sangeeta Sidhu, CEO and founder of Nosh Detox Delivery

• Gillian Nissim, Founder and Senior Communications Manager, Working Mums

Straight into the action and we're addressing why there are still so few top jobs in business filled by women.

There's consensus while attitudes are slowly changing in the corporate world, in reality women still face more obstacles than men when rising up the career ladder - and there are still perceptions and assumptions that the responsibility of childcare remains with the mother.

Sangeeta says it's what forced her into quitting a successful legal career to start her own business:

"I had all the qualifications and was a damn good lawyer, but I felt I had no choice. I couldn't survive in the corporate world while providing and caring for my family. I felt I had to quit; there was zero understanding."

Gillian agreed, adding: "Men aren't the ones who are expected to stay off if a child is sick or leave early to do the school run. Women are still the primary care providers."

The approach of small businesses was viewed more favourably, where it was felt a stronger level of understanding was had between owner and employee, although there were concerns heavy-handed regulation could be counter-productive.

It was felt the worry of being taken to a tribunal meant smaller businesses reverted to managing by the book when a more productive solution could have been agreed.

"I'd like to see more emphasis on the advantages for employers of flexible working than it just being seen as a win for workers' rights as it's often portrayed in the press," said Gillian.

It was agreed regulation then had a role within big business, but not small. Although the government's childcare vouchers, which the FSB's Marie-Claude described as 'a godsend' for both employer and employee, and also for the recent review of maternity and paternity rights, were praised.

On the topic of government funding for 'women in business' support, the only opposition was that the government shouldn't try to provide the support itself, but instead get behind the organisations out there which have already built up networks and provide proven services.

From my corner of man and under the clear understanding I was 'merely playing devil's advocate', I gently steered us back to the 'why' question.

"The attitude is different," said Sangeeta. "Men want to either give me money or create a corporate culture. I don't need or want either from them - I'm quite for my employees to work the hours that make sense and to take lunch!"

"You can't escape that men and women look at business differently," came Gillian with the argument that usually proves so contentious.

Notably her attempted justification of how men tend to focus on the financial and commercial potential of a business and women tend to be more creative and look at the bigger picture of a business' activity, was riddled with caveats this was 'obviously not all men' or 'all men' or only 'in her experience'.

And therein lies the quandary - and that's mostly definitely not a dig at Gillian. I'm probably where she is on this one. I can be convinced there probably are differences, but there are just too many exceptions to ever satisfactorily prove the rule.

For Sangeeta there's a more practical need for 'women in business' organisations as well, though - and this I can buy into far more comfortably.

"I had to go to LA to find a woman to advise me on growing my business - and that's ridiculous. There's a fair wider availability of male mentors than female. Where are all the women who've run businesses and could now be giving something back helping others and sharing their experiences? They're just not there - I've looked."

That took us to the need for more female role models and how to encourage more young women into starting businesses, with a call for teaching of enterprise in schools.

There was also a collective belief that technology and social media was making it far easier for women to find the support they needed and this would only continue to have a positive impact on attitudes.

So what did I learn as a man stepping into a woman's world? Probably what the cynics need to do more - and that's to listen. If the people out there starting and running businesses are telling us they derive genuine value from 'women in business' networking orgs, than who are they to argue?

Moreover, the absolute need to be treated fairly regardless of gender doesn't contradict the desire to seek advice from those we can relate most to - for some that comfort will come from entrepreneurs in the same sector or region, for others it'll be other women or mums in business. For many it'll be a combination of both and many other sources of support.

I fail to see how it's harmful. Equally the government should back support that works. Full stop. If that's a 'women in business' group, so be it.

In turn, more companies should follow Microsoft's lead and start digging deeper into what their customers really need - and if this is female-only focus, again, so be it.

Anyway, what do I know? I'm just a bloke, after all. You tell me.


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