For International Women’s Day, we talk to female business leaders about the unique challenges of doing business in a pandemic
We are all marking International Women’s Day for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic took over our lives. Many of us have lost loved ones, others have lost jobs and livelihoods and we’ve all lost many of the freedoms we took for granted. As women, we’ve come up against seismic challenges, the likes of which we simply weren’t prepared for.
As we begin to glimpse a route out of the pandemic, the impact on working women, and particularly on women who run businesses, has been fully exposed. There’s a pretty heavy feeling of injustice among many female business owners, but there’s also a shared sense of achievement. Yes, we’re tired and fed-up, but we’re also emboldened and positive about the future.
We spoke to some inspirational women in business about their experiences over the past twelve months. We found some similar themes running through their stories from which we can all gain insight as we emerge into a new, more promising year.
A bit of background…
Female entrepreneurs own 32 per cent of the small businesses in the UK. This is up from just 17 per cent four years ago. More and more women have started business after realising the value they can bring to the business world, their careers, their families and their local communities by doing so.
Many women have opted to start businesses so that they can apply the skills they have built throughout their careers, while working in a more flexible way. Being your own boss and relying on your own ingenuity and hard work is appealing to all women, not just those who have children.
Women are often effective at building valuable relationships and identifying opportunities as they progress through their careers. After a decade or two, a growing number are ready to reap the benefits of their hard work by going it alone. Social movements, like #metoo, and the opening up of the business world to female perspectives, is giving us more confidence to become entrepreneurs and believe in ourselves as business people.
Some reports have suggested that around three quarters of new businesses are now started by women. This is an astonishing shift and could lead to a lasting change in the way we all work. The rise in female entrepreneurship is something to truly celebrate, but it’s hard to deny that the Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant setback for so many female business owners and leaders.
Women have borne the brunt of much of the domestic and childcare responsibilities that have arisen as a result of lockdowns and school closures, and this has, perhaps, had the most notable impact. However, women in business have also had financial challenges to endure throughout the pandemic. The common refusal of furlough for childcare time off and the maternity leave oversight experienced by thousands of self-employed mothers claiming the Self Employment Income Suport Scheme (SEISS) are both challenges that are experienced almost uniquely by females in a way that amounts to discrimination in pretty much anyone’s book.
“You can’t pay lip service to flexibility”
Anna Cao runs Another Mother, a virtual admin and marketing agency for SMEs. She’s an example of a business owner who’s struggled through the past year feeling unsupported. She says: “Growing a business is challenging at the best of times – the pressures brought by the pandemic have made it even tougher.”
“Whilst it’s true that we are all ‘in this together’ and many of the challenges will be universal, it’s also an unfortunate truth that the majority of additional domestic workload has fallen to women. Our workforce is 90% parents so we are managing quite a significant reduction in productivity from the team,” she adds.
So why has so much of the pandemic-related childcare and homeschooling fallen on women’s shoulders? Many female business owners (and male business owners, for that matter) would have gone into business by themselves partly to create a better work/life balance. Some may have taken the entrepreneur route so that they could free themselves from the 9am-6pm working day and be there for school pickups. What they didn’t sign up to was giving the majority of their working day over to homeschooling, cooking and cleaning for months on end.
The inevitable fallout from the assumption that ‘flexibility’ means ‘availability’ is the collapse of a great number of promising female-run businesses, and the end to many women’s hopes and dreams.
So where do fathers come into this? The women we spoke to were very keen not to blame their male partners for their predicaments. Many felt their partners’ employers were the problem. “I see men working much longer hours, maintaining professionalism and trying to take on more at home too. You can’t pay lip service to flexibility,” explains Anna who, like the other women we spoke to, feels that each household has its own, unique challenges to deal with.
Anna is also frustrated at the lack of support for online businesses through the pandemic. “The government should be supporting businesses to financially cover these shortfalls but they have still not offered any tangible assistance to small business owners without physical premises – many of these businesses are female-led,” she asserts.
Despite what she calls an “immensely frustrating” year, Anna has celebrated some victories. She supported one of Another Mother’s clients, in the role of marketing and business development manager, to turn a profit and offer bonuses to their staff for the first time. Anna attributes this success to the stoicism she learned from her own mother, who is also a business owner. “Covid has taken a mental toll, it’s harder work, it’s tough to remain optimistic but in all other respects it’s business as usual… we just get on with it,” she states.
“I just know I need to survive, that’s what I’ve been focusing on”
For many of those who have managed to keep their previously thriving female-led businesses alive, it’s been an enormous challenge to survive. Dr Elizabeth Michelle, who runs Dr Elizabeth Michelle Consultancy and also works as a psychologist and psychotherapist, describes how she’s made it through the past twelve months: “In the first month of the pandemic, I lost 14 public speaking bookings with corporations that I’d worked hard to build up over the previous year,” she explains.
Despite keeping her business afloat, homeschooling her children and finishing her doctorate during Covid, she bats away my suggestion that she has triumphed during covid, instead crediting herself as merely having ‘survived’.
This survival comes down to organisational skills (she writes an ‘urgent’ and an ‘important’ to-do list each morning), combined with self-care. “I try really hard to carve out nuggets of ‘me time’ here and there. Just a few moments,” explains Elizabeth.
When I asked her about her opinion of the government support available, she replied “I haven’t had time to think about it. Working in psychotherapy, mental health and schooling has been so chaotic and explosive, I just know I need to survive, that’s what I’ve been focusing on.”
“Sometimes you just have to go with it and try not to stress about things you can’t control”
Julie Besbrode runs the speciality coffee shop, Common Ground, in Altrincham, near Manchester, with her husband Damian. The challenges Julie and her team have faced have been of a more practical and logistical nature. While many women in business are juggling home working with homeschooling, others are still physically going to work and running businesses that remain open and dealing with the fallout of overnight lockdown rule changes.
Alongside the enormous staffing issues the pandemic threw up, Julie also talks about the direct impact of lockdown on her coffee shop business. “Essentially, we faced lots of new guidelines and unexpected expenses whilst our income reduced dramatically, due to fewer people going out and greater restrictions on how they were able to meet each other.
As the owner of a small business, you always have to be ready to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. The pandemic tested this level of flexibility to the very highest degree,” she added.
Julie, Damian and their team of 20 have adapted to survive, making the best use of social media while in lockdown to remain engaged and relevant in their community while their doors were shut, for example. She also speaks of the importance of compassion when managing a team of staff who are all fighting their own pandemic-related battles. “My advice is to be compassionate and kind. Try to understand what your team (and suppliers) might be going through and give them as much support as you can to get through it – without them your business cannot exist. Look after your people and they will look after your business with you.”
“We have expanded the quality and skill set in our talent pool by really leaning into the concept of remote working”
Julie’s high regard for interpersonal compassion is something shared by another business leaders we spoke to. Robyn Lee, the Operations Director for HS Property Group, has supported a policy to wholeheartedly embrace flexible working to the benefit of the business she works for.
As a woman with an executive-level job, Robyn has seen the impact of the pandemic on the staff she manages and on the operational side of the business. With a young team to oversee, her first priority was to make sure everyone had what they needed to work from home on a practical level. “We made sure everyone had what they needed to physically be able to complete their jobs at home as a first priority. After this, it all came down to communication.”
HS Property Group provides social housing, which is a commodity in even greater demand than before the pandemic. From accommodation for NHS workers, to low-cost housing and refuge for victims of domestic abuse, there is a huge and growing demand for these provisions. Robyn says that ensuring staff needs are understood is key to ensuring this demand is met. “It is my goal to ensure that everyone is happy, engaged and motivated within their role to be able to provide for the needs of our partners,” she explains.
“I allowed for my personal life to help my business and I am happier for it”
When it comes to adapting in 2020, Nadia Edwards-Dashti, the Chief Customer Officer at Fintech recruitment firm Harrington Star, really ran with the opportunities for flexible working that came her way. Within a few months of the pandemic hitting, her business was rocked by the impact: “In late April, like many others I saw the devastating impact Covid was having on our economy, on our businesses, on our teams and on our people. As a recruitment business, like other industries, we were hit very hard and severely by the sudden stop to all activity in the City of London and beyond,” she explains.
Having just given birth as first the lockdown started, Nadia had new personal challenges to deal with, but was passionate about her industry and wanted to do what she could, from home, to help. As it turned out, the move en mass to remote working was incredibly beneficial. “I started reaching out to people in and outside of my networks to discuss how we could overcome the challenges together, “ she explained.
“During this time I built networks at a speed I had never done before. We set up roundtables and group discussions and my podcast series grew from strength to strength. My podcasts in particular gave a new way for businesses to market themselves and build relationships with future partners or investors.”
Nadia explains how switching to virtual meetings and remote working enabled her to network far more effectively. And that meeting the challenges of the pandemic itself have provided her and her colleagues with a shared experience that would otherwise have evaded them. “I can host meetings in London, New York and Amsterdam all in the same day and have learnt how to ensure we embody our differences, our values and our diversity in a way that we can all appreciate having been through this time together.”
A lasting shift?
It’s clear to see that these female business leaders have come through the pandemic with an even greater appreciation for the value of flexible working. Remote working and flexible hours was traditionally seen, from a patriarchal perspective, as a concession to be made under duress. The pandemic has taught us all that, if handled correctly and treated with respect, remote working can transform the way we do business to everyone’s benefit.
On top of that, business owners, regardless of gender, will be reassessing their priorities post-Covid. Adaptability is now king and as business owners we need to be agile and willing to diversify. Then there’s the new-found appreciation for our staff and their wellbeing.
Perhaps, as we move into a future without the cloud of Covid hanging over us, the business world itself will adapt to a reality where women are opening more businesses than men. And where flexible working is no longer seen as a ‘benefit’, but as the absolute norm for men and women alike.