As a Black female consultant, who often works with female leaders in organizations or women entrepreneurs forging their own path, I have been witness to many other women’s struggles and successes over the years. Entrepreneurship is a tough path for anyone. Factor in gender and race, and it becomes even more difficult to survive in the business world.
Women tend to have similar challenges in getting plum assignments, being paid for what we’re worth, and getting funding or loans for our businesses. The battle to prove ourselves begins the moment we declare we are striving for more, and it’s a battle that never ends. Call it what you will – sexism, patriarchy, gender-based discrimination – it is the current women swim against every day of their lives. It’s a current that can wear a body out.
A friend and fellow entrepreneur, Nikki Gillingham, Founder of Blue Whale Communications, shared one of her experiences as a new consultant of swimming against this current and the toll it took on her:
“I was brought on to an important project within the federal government as communications and change management support. The project team was led by a male senior consultant, who had come out of retirement to be the project executive, and a male project manager. Despite the department’s mandate that communications and change management be involved in projects of this magnitude, there was a constant battle to prove myself to these men, who on an almost daily basis questioned the value of communications, the value of my work, and the value of my knowledge. It seemed almost ludicrous to them that the young woman they had to ‘put up with’ actually knew what she was talking about.”
These struggles layered additional stress on her daily workload, which compelled her to take additional days off to recuperate. Eventually, Nikki decided the toll the job was taking on her wasn’t worth it, and after a year and a half of work on the project, she chose not to renew her contract. Of course, she is not alone. Throughout their careers, whether as consultants for government departments and agencies, as local business owners, or as professionals employed by private companies, women struggle against the current of patriarchy.
These currents don’t just roil the workplace. They flow through our private lives, and the pull they exert in the home also affects women’s professional lives. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic, scholars of gender inequality in the workplace, examined why so few women hold leadership positions at work.
When it comes to entrepreneurship and accessing funds to advance small businesses, gender inequality rears its ugly head here as well. According to Ottawa-based The Founders Fund, 16% of businesses in Canada are women-led and owned, however, only 2.8% of venture capital funding in 2018 was directed to women. The numbers are even worse for Black women entrepreneurs. According to Betakit, in 2018 the Government of Canada tried to level the playing field and support more diverse women in business, creating a number of grants available to 300 women-owned businesses. Of those 300 who secured funding, only two were led by Black women. Even government attempts at diversifying the entrepreneurship landscape can fail.
It can be overwhelming to think about the challenges we face as self-employed women. The currents we swim against – the long hours we put in to prove ourselves, the lower pay we accept to get a foot in the door, the sexism and inequality – can make entrepreneurialism a lonely and difficult journey.
Ultimately, for many women, myself included, the freedom that comes with working for ourselves and being our own boss outweighs the sacrifices we must make to do so. However, this doesn’t justify them. Unlike the natural currents fish contend with, these are man-made and so can be unmade, and I believe that, ultimately, they will be.
This is the first in a two-part series about women in business. Stay tuned for the next post.