Women’s Entrepreneurship Day: A Closer Look at “Awareness”

International Women’s Entrepreneurship Day is November 19th. Isn’t it time we shift our focus to incentivizing gender equality instead of simply raising awareness that female entrepreneurs exist?

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Photo from CBC’s Dragon Den

We’ve all been there. Sitting politely in a crowded banquet hall full of people watching someone at a podium go on and on and on. Another speaker comes and repeats the exact same thing – in different words. The cycle continues and after 8 hours of checking the clock, it finally ends and everyone pats themselves on the back for a job well done. All of the tens of thousands of dollars that went into those 8 hours is justified by accomplishing the goal of “raising awareness.”

One would hope that if tens of thousands of dollars were invested in raising awareness, that there would be hundreds of thousands of dollars in ROI, however this is not necessarily the case. It is true that awareness raising is especially important for causes that people do not know exist. Human trafficking, for example, was not a term the general public understood just 5 years ago. Thanks to awareness raising and media attention, the public is slowly gaining an understanding of what it means. There needs to be an awareness of the problem before action can be taken. But what of the topics people are already aware of and are still having awareness conferences for? Can spending tens of thousands of dollars on raising awareness for the sake of raising awareness be justified?

On November 19, 2015, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day initiative aims to bring awareness to women’s entrepreneurship through holding an event to “empower, celebrate and support women entrepreneurs worldwide”. It might not come as a surprise that the event has 50 speakers all vying for podium time to achieve this goal. However, the connection between raising awareness of women’s entrepreneurship and supporting women remains unclear.

Last year was the inaugural event where New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared November 19, 2015 to be known as Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. When asked why women entrepreneurs need a proclaimed day, Founder Wendy Diamond responded, “You’ve got Turtle Day, you’ve got Bubble Bath Day. These are real days in the world. So I thought, let’s do Women’s Entrepreneurship Day.”

The Women’s Entrepreneurship Day initiative, however, is not just a one day wonder. The initiative goes beyond the actual day to “bring awareness to the fact that we need to empower, celebrate and support women (entrepreneurs).” There’s that catch-all word again: awareness. So how exactly does the initiative suggest we empower, celebrate and support women? The action plan involves instituting an international certification program that can catalogue women entrepreneurs. The goal being that businesses can display their armband, excuse me, sticker on their storefront so that consumers can easily recognize which businesses are women led. This idea, however, is based on the assumption that the majority of consumers are sexist to favour women over men in business. Taking into consideration the gender gap and the whole impetus for bringing awareness to women entrepreneurs in the first place, smart money says this idea could actually be detrimental to women entrepreneurs if implemented.

Assuming most people know that women entrepreneurs exist, before a solution can be found, the problem needs to be clearly defined. The first part of the problem everyone can readily agree on: there aren’t nearly enough women entrepreneurs compared to men entrepreneurs. The second part is where it all falls apart: why?

The Canadian Women’s Foundation believes that familial obligations, unaffordable childcare, lack of transportation options, and unaffordable senior care are major responsibilities that typically fall to women and make entrepreneurship even less of an economically viable option. They focus on providing programming support in these areas so that women have more employment options (entrepreneurial or otherwise). This explanation focuses on the women themselves and asks why they have not made the choice to be an entrepreneur and comes to the conclusion that it must be their relative poverty to men. The assumption is that when in poverty, it is more difficult to take an economic risk as an entrepreneur.

Women of Influence says that 7% of investment dollars are being invested in female-led start-ups and less than 5% of the decision makers are female. Although not every start up seeks seed money, it is clear that the people with the money and making the decisions are choosing male entrepreneurs 93% of the time and 95% of these investors are male. Women of Influence believes the business environment has been dominated by men and is designed for men to succeed. Sexism by men with money is the cause of low numbers of women entrepreneurs. However, even Women of Influence concedes that this problem is something to work on as a long-term goal. In the meantime, they focus on women’s mentorship programs to help women survive in a male-dominated business world.

The commonality in both of these explanations is sexism. Sexism in familial roles keeps women in poverty. Sexism as favoritism puts women at a disadvantage over their male competitors.

A perfect example of this is Lisa von Sturmer’s famous pitch on the popular TV show, Dragon’s Den. Her company, Growing City, provides composting services for offices in Vancouver where provincial regulations make composting mandatory. Through shrewd business practices she quickly grew her business from $100,000 to $200,000 over 2 years. Watch her whole pitch and pay close attention to Kevin’s comments at 3:11.

“Why don’t (national cleaning companies) just say, ‘here’s our organic service charge at 20 more bucks a month. We’re already cleaning (your office) every night. Don’t need the pretty girl in the blue dress. We’ll take care of it for you.’”

And just like that, all of Lisa’s accomplishments and shrewd business skills were trivialized while simultaneously reducing her to an attractiveness rating. Although it may seem like a harmless comment (and to some, it may even be seen as a compliment) it is this thinking that holds women back from success. If women are viewed as only bodies and their accomplishments tied up with their appearance, it is no wonder that more men are not eager to invest in female entrepreneurial ventures. Their attractiveness has a short shelf life and is not a good long term investment. Instead of seeing the enduring qualities of talent, skill, intellect and tenacity that are needed to succeed in business, they see a ranking from 1 to 10.

As Kevin is rich and in a clear position of power, he felt safe being able to voice his sexist opinions without fear of reprisal, but for every Kevin, there are many others that keep these opinions silent. Arlene (notably the only female Dragon in the Den) even attempted to show her disgust with his degrading remark, but ultimately had to capitulate due to her own precarious position (only female in the Den). Lisa, not being in a position of power at all, ignored the comment and focused on the topic at hand displaying her professionalism and attempting to show through form, what she was not allowed to address in content.

With the women’s entrepreneurship problem defined as sexism, it becomes clear that any program that focuses on supporting women is doomed to fail as it does not address the problem. To solve the problem the focus cannot be on the people being disadvantaged and needs to shift towards the people creating the inequality. Perhaps sexism education in schools, or creative incentive programs focused on the 95% of male investors would go further to balance the scales. So as Women’s Entrepreneurship Day approaches, perhaps it would be more effective to do a little less “awareness raising” and a little more incentivizing equality.

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