For some time now, the social enterprise sector has been recognised as a space where female entrepreneurs can thrive. Indeed, nearly half of social enterprises are led by women, compared with only 16% of SMEs, and 6% of FTSE100 companies. Many social enterprises also focus on supporting women and girls, with around 12% of social enterprises naming gender equality as their main social objective.
Even so, women social entrepreneurs face a series of unique challenges. There remains a lot of work to do to ensure that the social enterprise sector provides a conducive environment for female and non-binary workers and business leaders, and that social enterprises do even more to tackle gender inequality in society at large.
With this in mind, we spoke to women heading up social enterprises, as well as several buyers from prominent corporate partners. They noted that, despite the generally progressive nature of social enterprises, they are still subject to the same attitudes and obstacles as the industries in which they compete. Latoyah Lewis, the founder of Rising Stars Property Solutions (a CIC offering construction, gardening, clearance, and cleaning services), talked about the difficulties involved in the construction industry, ‘which has a make up of mostly men’. Latoyah believes that this male domination adds an additional barrier for female led social enterprises, ‘our competitors are male owned private companies which gives them a lot more access to contracts, investment and opportunities than social enterprises.’ This also means that a small firm that, given its size, already faces certain disadvantages, has to face down more challenges than its competitors: as Latoyah explained, ‘we have to fight twice as hard to prove that we can deliver’.
Similarly, Suzanne Noble, Startup School for Seniors, highlighted structural barriers, but this time around acquiring investment and funding. Suzanne emphasised difficulties around ‘core funding’, not just investment at the point of delivery. This chimes with wider research, which has shown that women entrepreneurs often face systemic barriers when it comes to attracting investment. Reflecting on the lack of sustainable funds, Suzanne told us that ‘many of us are caught in a feast or famine cycle’.
Suzanne’s concerns around investment were reflected by Chichi Oneyenemelu, a Social Value Adviser at the Hyde Group, who explained that, paradoxically, the empowerment of women within social enterprises also presents challenges:
‘With most social enterprises having a majority female workforce and 40% led by women, another layer of challenge comes into play, with access to finance, investment and mentorship being among the reoccurring barriers all too synonymous with the female social entrepreneur experience.’
In Chichi’s view, this means that, ‘there is still a disproportionate demand for … [women] to prove themselves beyond reasonable expectation’.
But despite this, there is plenty of reason to feel hopeful about the future of female-led social enterprise. Ultimately, to have female entrepreneurs working and competing at this level is a prerequisite for barriers to be broken down. Chichi wanted to communicate this flipside, highlighting that ‘social enterprise is proving to have an important role to play in empowering women’.
This year's Social Procurement Festival speaker line-up is again dominated by women leading in social value, impact, social business and sustainability
Likewise, Natalie Campbell, CEO of BELU, a drinks company that works on environmentalism and water aid, maintains that social enterprises offer women fantastic opportunities, and ‘a lot of reward, both personal and professional’. She emphasised the joy to be found in a business with a social purpose, and how this infuses all aspects of working life: ‘every decision I make is about people and or our impact on the planet … it gives the time I spend working profound meaning and purpose’. Sheryl Moore, Group Social Sustainability Manager at Kier Group, also stresses these benefits, but from the buyers’ side: ‘The field provides so many innovative opportunities … [and] knowing your actions are making a positive impact is such a rewarding experience’.
The double-edge of the opportunities for women social entrepreneurs is also reflected in the joys and frustrations of social value itself. As Emily Davies described it, ‘From day to day, week to week, I feel less or more optimistic … it can be challenging sometimes when you feel action can and should be happening at a quicker pace across your sector — although for genuine change to take place, it often takes time.’ This janus-faced perspective seems fundamental for women looking to be enthusiastic social entrepreneurs, whilst wanting to improve the way things are done, and to expand the opportunities available. It is a view that was repeated by almost all the women we spoke with.
It appears then that, whilst social enterprises are a fantastic field for women to enter and excel in business, and to help create a more equitable and sustainable future, they are still subject to the same issues that confront women in wider society. This is why International Women’s Day is so essential: it asks us to recognise the successes we’ve made, whilst urging us to move forwards to new struggles. Given the prevalence of women leaders, and the focus on social justice, today is a great opportunity to remind social enterprises to continue celebrating women’s successes, and to keep fighting for gender equality in the workplace and elsewhere.
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