From flexible working to unconscious biases, SME owners reveal experiences of – and efforts to tackle – work-based sexism through their business models.
With the majority of men and women of working age employed,
and with women in management positions at more than two million small and medium-sized enterprises, it’s surprising that gender inequality in the workplace remains an issue.
So, why do women continue to face obstacles? And what are SMEs doing to address them? Here, business owners share their experiences and approaches.
Flexible working can be problematic for all businesses, particularly when it comes to employees balancing parental responsibilities with work commitments.
There’s no glass ceiling; we’re making our own rules
Polly Buckland, The Typeface Group
A recent survey of more than 2,000 women by Workingmums claimed that more than a quarter of mums in work (26pc) have had flexible working requests turned down, putting a strain on their work-life balance.
The Typeface Group, a digital marketing agency, has built the commitments of four working mums in its workforce into the business model. The office manager also schedules project timings to ensure that client expectations and personal commitments are met.
"We offer flexibility to all and in return, we have an engaged team that wants to work for the business,” says managing director, Polly Buckland. "There’s no glass ceiling; we’re making our own rules and growing both our business and our families.”
Overcoming disparities and embracing opportunities
When the founders of DAME, a monthly subscription service for female wellness products, tried to secure funding, they felt that everyday sexism hindered them.
“Throughout our funding journey, we constantly faced rows of men, some refusing to see us because my co-founder has children that ‘would distract her mentally’ from growing the business,” says Alec Mills, co-founder. “The only time that we were able to pitch to women was through a specialist female-centric investment network.”
Parental leave policies should be gender neutral
Sarah Andresen, Fairsail
Sophie Gibson founded her marketing agency, Team Eleven, with a male co-founder. She feels that the balance of genders at the top worked to her advantage. “People bought into both of us,” she explains. “They knew that we both had integrity and would do our best to ensure that everyone we worked with would be valued for their contribution, not because of their gender. Our success demonstrates that this balanced model can work.”
Tackling unconscious gender bias
Sarah Andresen, the head of people science at HR software company, Fairsail, believes that businesses have an unconscious gender bias that’s rooted in both men and women.
“These biases impact perceptions of performance, skills and competencies, and ultimately success within an organisation,” she explains. “This can’t continue; biases need to be addressed through proactive measurement, performance reviews and a general awareness of the unconscious bias in the workplace.”
Of course, not all biases are weighted against women. “Small businesses must enable equality by treating men and women equally in all aspects," adds Ms Andresen. “For example, parental leave policies should be gender neutral.”
Standing out from the crowd
Small businesses with fewer employees may, however, offer women an opportunity to stand out. Curated Digital, a marketing company,
has an almost even split of men and women in its workforce. It gives everyone a chance to stand out.
“Without the safety nets of larger companies, everyone here has the freedom to shape their role as they see fit,” says director, Monica Karpinski. “So, as a woman, there are fewer obstacles to overcome, the glass ceiling seems much lower than in larger companies, and there’s more of a chance for employees to confront and address issues such as the gender pay gap.”
This rings true with the staff in Ms Karpinski’s company. “Here, everyone is more likely to be visible and integral to the business, and your boss is more likely to know you better,” says head of digital PR, Amy Shaw.