Three ways politicians can influence business attitudes to women

Lianne Wilkinson shares her personal opinion about what needs to change.  See the Prowess Connect Manifesto here and share your own views about what needs to change in the comments or by sending us your own blog article for publication.   

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Business owners today are coming from a wider variety of backgrounds than ever, with an infographic published on the Daily Telegraph’s website in July showing the full spectrum of British entrepreneurship.

UK startups infographic
Infographic using statistics drawn from a survey commissioned by Amazon of 2,000 business decision-makers in the UK.

Commissioned by Amazon, the study showed that almost three out of ten business owners have no more than an A-Level standard of education, and the north-south divide is not as great as you might expect. Although London is home to 24% of entrepreneurs, it’s also home to a sixth of the population, so it’s encouraging to those of us living elsewhere in the country that 28% are in other parts of the South and 21% are in the North.

The real headline-grabber, however, is that marginally more startups are now being launched by women than by men. For those of us who regularly attend business meetings and networking events, this will be of little surprise. I think we’ve all noticed more women coming along to these sessions, as I certainly have, but concrete evidence of a shift in female numbers and attitude to business has not always been easy to find. The study concluded that 52% of startups are now being launched by women.

With party conference season upon us in September, politicians would do well to observe this trend and realise that women truly mean business. The myth that female-led firms were simply something done as a hobby, with little ambition to really make an impact, has been clearly shattered; women business owners more than compete today, and are clearly growing in their eagerness to set up an enterprise. At the top level, however, progress is not yet catching up. As of May 2014, just 21.6% of directors at FTSE 100 companies are women. Although this is admittedly much more positive than the 12.5% in 2010, it’s still four men for every female.

In searching for the votes of business-minded women, politicians should be reaching out to their growing numbers. Here are three ways they can do this:

1. Lead by example

Politicians are highly vocal about their support for women in business, but the volume of their words is often drowned out by the silence of their actions, and the gender divide is particularly notable in Westminster itself. In 2012, 1,108 members of the House of Commons were male and 962 were female. This is moving in the right direction but, when females account for 51% of the population, should these numbers not be roughly equal?

Of the main parties, only two (the Green Party and Plaid Cymru) have female leaders, and even their frontbenches show little in the way of female inclusion. The Prime Minister himself has spoken about his wish to involve more women in executive positions in Britain, but this is scarcely reflected in the set-up of his party. Indeed, the coalition’s business management committee is entirely male. This, coupled with his patronising “calm down, dear” comments towards shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle a few years ago, makes it difficult to take such talk seriously.

Politicians need to demonstrate that they are leading from the front in introducing more women to top jobs. Until they do, their words sound more like rhetoric than genuine intentions.

2. Support the Institute of Directors

One organisation that is particularly keen to help women in business is the Institute of Directors (IoD), which has been actively calling upon women to get involved in business ownership. The IoD is made up of people who have been there and done it, so they know what they’re talking about. Politicians, for all the will in the world, rarely have experience of business ownership, so they need to listen to what the IoD has to say.

Calls from the IoD to the Government in recent years have included recommendations to increase the basic tax band, scrap the HS2 railway and reduce the volume of EU red tape affecting business. Of course, the Government can’t be expected to bend over backwards for the IoD, but closer public work with the organisation would encourage a genuine interest in business and an understanding of the trends affecting it.

3. Consider quotas

This, personally, is not something I would like to see. Women have proved themselves to be comfortable in top positions and shouldn’t really need “positive discrimination” to secure boardroom jobs. However, if archaic attitudes persist, it is an option – and one that David Cameron has publicly suggested “if we cannot get there by other means”.

Compared to some countries, the UK has little history of taking affirmative action to balance up disparities in sectors. It’s perhaps most notable in Northern Ireland, where the Police Service is required to take on equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants. I agree it should be a last resort, and upward growth in FTSE 100 female directors will hopefully eliminate the need for it, but the issue will no doubt be raised again if progress stalls.

Regardless of which party we vote for in the next election, the most important selection women are making is to be involved in business ownership. Let’s hope this keeps moving in the right direction.

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What do you think? Please add your comments or send us a blog article with your views on what political parties need to do to gain the support of the growing number of women in business. 

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