The role that women play in business has grown vastly over the last few decades, but there’s still a long way to go. The reality is that the statistics for women in business still lag behind men in many key areas today. The Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) rate for women was just 10% in 2018 and 2019, while men exceeded that rate by nearly 75%, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2018-2019 Women’s Report. This study, which includes data from 59 global economies, also found that approximately 231 million women are new or current business owners within those countries. Even with these numbers, women continue to lag behind men, with women comprising just 6.2% of business ownership. On the other hand, about 9.5% of men are established business owners.
But while women do not make up the largest portion of business owners, they are still responsible for making serious headway in the field. According to a 2019 report from S&P Global, firms with female CFOs are more profitable, generating excess profits of $1.8 trillion in 2019. The report notes that in the 24 months following the female CEOs’ appointments, the companies they work for saw, on average, a 20% increase in stock price momentum, while female CFOs saw a 6% increase in profitability and 8% larger stock returns.
There’s still plenty of room for women in the business world. As attitudes shift and the male-dominated industry becomes more welcoming, it appears to be inspiring students to consider careers in business. The Graduate Management Admissions Council reported in 2019 that women in MBA programs typically comprised about 46.3% of enrollees, while men made up about 53.7% of the enrollment. This split, which is inching closer to 50/50, is the most evenly split that MBA programs have been in recent history.
In order to help level the playing field, we created this guide for women studying business. It will highlight common challenges, offer tips on how to gain confidence, detail areas women have notably thrived in, and outline what they can expect upon graduation and the start of their professional careers.
Women in Business
Success in business stems from knowing what to expect as you move from your studies to your professional career. In order to successfully navigate a career in this field, it’s important to know what lies ahead after graduation. The challenges listed below may be some of what you face when entering this field.
Despite the headway that has been made, there are some unique but common challenges for women in business. These include:
Being a woman can make it more difficult to get your business off the ground. A 2019 report from HSBC Private Banking, She’s the Business, noted that over 33% of female entrepreneurs have experienced gender bias while trying to raise business capital for their businesses. A 2018 report from Inc. noted even higher numbers of gender bias during the funding process, with a whopping 62% of female entrepreneurs stating that they’d experienced some form of gender bias during the funding process.
Women also tend to have a much harder time getting loan approvals. And, loans that are approved for female business entrepreneurs tend to come with higher interest rates and fees. Analysts at Biz2Credit also noted in 2020 that women received, on average, about 31% less in loan funding when compared to their male counterparts.
Salary and its negotiation
Funding isn’t the only hurdle for women in business. Salary negotiation can be, too. As of 2020, full-time female workers received, on average, about $.82 to every dollar earned by men, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). And, that’s the case even though more women pursued higher education.
With the average woman earning less than men in the workplace, it can easily turn into a lifelong struggle for financial independence. These reduced earnings translate to contributing less to Social Security and pensions, which leaves women with only about 70% the retirement income that men earn.
Women in business may also experience what some experts call the “opportunity gap.” This term describes “the barriers that keep women in lower-level, lower-paid, individual-contributor positions compared to those held by their male executive and management counterparts.” What this means is that there are invisible barriers that keep women from being offered the same opportunities that men in business are offered, and it can be a relatively large hurdle to clear.
A recent report from AAUW found that women typically hold fewer senior roles in business and also earn lower wages when working within women-dominated areas. The wage gap widens significantly for more highly educated women, especially when compared to their male counterparts.
Imposter syndrome is another real hurdle that women in business can face. Imposter syndrome, which is an internal conflict that can make people feel like intellectual phonies, appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high-achieving women — especially in male dominated industries.
First identified by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, those with imposter syndrome are unable to see and appreciate their own success, making them feel like they are forever skirting a thin line within their professional career. It can lead to significant and near-debilitating bouts of anxiety, insecurity, and doubt that attack your self-esteem and cripple your confidence.
Having children can also play a role in the challenges women face at work. According to a Harvard study, mothers tend to face penalties in hiring, starting salaries, and perceived competence, while fathers can benefit from being a parent.
Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who studies workplace discrimination, told ScienceMag.org in 2019 that the maternal wall bias “occurs when colleagues view mothers — or pregnant women — as less competent and less committed to their jobs.” And, unsurprisingly, it’s a major problem for women’s career advancement.
In particular, motherhood myths — as noted in a 2017 study on gender norms in the workplace — tend to serve as justification regarding gender discrimination against women in the workplace. These motherhood myths include the assumption that women, by their very nature, are endowed with parenting abilities and that at-home mothers are bonded to their children, providing them unrivalled nurturing surroundings.
Conversely, these myths lead to the belief that employed mothers are neglecting their duty of caring, threatening the family relationships and jeopardizing mother-children bondings. Not only do these myths act as justifications for gender discrimination regarding career opportunity, but they can also have a profound psychological effect on women with children in business.
The hurdles for women in business are real, but it’s important to note that women contribute to the workplace in many important ways. Promoting women to positions of power in business:
Creates a diverse workforce
Diversity creates innovation and fosters creativity, which is one part of why it’s so important that women are employed in male-dominated industries.
The Center for Creative Leadership found that businesses with a higher number of female employees typically had improved organizational dedication with more meaningful work. Employees in these businesses also cited higher levels of job satisfaction with lower levels of burnout. Businesses that employ women typically have happier and more productive employees, which can also generate increased sales and improved productivity.
Team-building and cohesion
Women also tend to place a great emphasis on teamwork in business. According to a 2017 Harvard Business Review study, women are more likely to care for the collective, which means they are more likely to step in when they see a gap or ambiguity. This naturally promotes teamwork and collaboration among employees. Men, on the other hand, tend to focus on individual success.
While the burden may be on the women to promote teamwork, the good news is that it can give female employees greater influence and set the tone for the office culture. Women have also been found to excel in several other areas, including conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability, and achievement orientation.
Soft skills and emotional intelligence
According to a 2016 global advisory by firm Korn Ferry, women typically score higher than men on nearly all emotional intelligence competencies, except emotional self-control, where no gender differences are observed.
The report noted that, in particular, the greatest difference between men and women can be seen in emotional self-awareness, with women being 86% more likely than men to be seen as using the competency consistently.
Other competencies in which women outperform men are coaching & mentoring, influence, inspirational leadership, conflict management, organizational awareness, adaptability, teamwork and achievement orientation.
“If more men acted like women in employing their emotional and social competencies, they would be substantially and distinctly more effective in their work,” noted lead researcher Richard E. Boyatzis, Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University.
Offer consumer insight
Women employees also typically tend to reach consumers in ways that their male colleagues simply cannot thanks to their high emotional intelligence. This can be of major benefit to businesses, should they find ways to empower women in lead roles.
“The data suggests a strong need for more women in the workforce to take on leadership roles. When you factor in the correlation between high emotional intelligence and those leaders who deliver better business results, there is a strong case for gender equity. Organizations must find ways to identify women who score highly on these competencies and empower them,” said study co-author Daniel Goleman, who is the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University.
Utilizing women in business roles can also lead to improved performance across the board. The World Economic Forum noted in a 2021 report that narrowing the gender gap could increase gross domestic product by an average of 35%. Of that, about 20% of that growth could be directly attributed to increased productivity from gender diversity.
How Women Can Best Excel in Business
While the business field is much more welcoming of gender diversity today, most women will have their work cut out for them if they want to succeed. Still, embracing these challenges could open great opportunities for career advancement.
There are many ways to make yourself stand out in your profession. These include:
Build Confidence and Lean Into Discomfort
The fear of an uncomfortable situation can keep you from achieving the goals you have for your career. That’s why it’s important to build your confidence and lean into the discomfort that comes with conflict in the workplace.
- Ask for what you want. Schedule an appointment in advance to state your case. Be clear about your expectations and why you feel they are deserved.
- Say no. While teamwork can help build a great work culture, it is important to ensure that you also stand up for yourself and do not take on more than you should. Say no when you need to.
- Push back. You may have to fight for what you want at times, too. If you are given an offer that is not in line with what you would reasonably expect, don’t be afraid to push back with a rational explanation of why you deserve more.
- Don’t apologize for your opinions. It is important to always be mindful of one’s actions, but you also have the right to an opinion — and you have a right for your opinion to be heard. As a member of the team, it is important that your colleagues are given your input. You bring your own unique perspective and experience to the table, just like the men do.
Advocate for inclusivity becoming a policy
For many companies, the recent push for gender inclusion has been a game-changer in business. The current business climate means there is more opportunity to revisit and reformulate antiquated policies that no longer fit the modern business world — so make sure you speak up and add your voice to the mix as these policies are created or revised.
If you feel that your company’s policies could use some work, get involved. You can start by initiating a conversation. Talk to human resources and management to advocate for greater inclusivity within your company. Collaborate with other women or marginalized groups within your business to help push for change. It can be easier to drive change in large numbers, so if you can find others who want to help advocate for change, use it to your advantage.
Strengthen credentials with a business degree
Knowledge is power, and your degree may not only be a ticket to a better job — but a higher income as well. A degree in business is especially important, as it can offer benefits that pay off over time and help you build the career you want. In order to strengthen your credentials, you may choose to:
- Become a subject matter expert. When you become a subject matter expert, your experience can help others. It can also help you to earn professional respect and establish yourself as a credible, respected authority in your field while setting you apart from the competition.
- Practice leadership skills. Take additional courses when you can in order to build your skills. You can also volunteer for any opportunities that would let you put those skills into action.
- Focus on networking. Networking with others helps you to make connections that you can reach out to when the right job comes along. Networking can also help when it comes to brainstorming new ideas or solving problems. Plus, building a network of like-minded professionals is always a benefit, whether you need support, a connection, or a referral.
- Find a career mentor. With career mentorship, you can benefit from someone else’s experience, from both their successes and mistakes. The sage advice you receive from a mentor can help you better navigate your career and reach goals and milestones more quickly.
- Leverage higher entry salary. Once you are settled in your job, it can be harder to negotiate a raise. Try to leverage a higher salary during hiring that you can build on with future promotions and raises.
Resources for Future Business Women
There are several resources for business women that may offer you insight and other tools into this field. These resources are useful whether you are just starting your career or are an experienced professional. These include:
Organizations centered on women’s advancement
- National Women’s Business Council (NWBC): This is a federal advocacy group designed to report directly to the President, Congress, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) in counsel on women’s economic issues.
- Women Impacting Public Policy: This is a U.S.-based nonpartisan public policy organization that advocates for legislative support for both women and minorities.
- Babson’s Center for Women’s Leadership: This center is a leader in research and business that has founded the Center for Women’s Leadership to provide better leadership and support programs to females around the world.
- Catalyst: This is a non-profit that works with businesses around the country to create opportunities for females in business and improve workplace inclusivity.
- National Women Business Owners Corporation (NWBOC): This group provides the national Woman Business Enterprise (WBE) certification program for female business owners.
Women’s entrepreneurship resources
- SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership: This group has over 100 centers that provide federal contracting support for aspiring and established women entrepreneurs through the Small Business Federal Contracting Program.
- Association of Women’s Business Centers: This group provides support and resources for female business owners in search of venture capital.
- National Association for Female Executives: This group is a leader in research and development for women’s entrepreneurship.
- The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC): This group provides the largest third-party independent certification for women-owned businesses, enabling business opportunities with major corporations.
- U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce (USWCC): This is a federal program designed to protect the interests of female entrepreneurs through advocacy, education, and multiple certification programs.
Women’s networking and mentor programs
- National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO): This group is a dues-based national association designed to connect and unite female business owners through local chapters, meetings, and networking events.
- SCORE: This group offers free and confidential business advice from mentors, available both online and in-person, through local chapters. It also offers a website full of resources.
- International Association of Women (IAW): This group coordinates in-person and virtual-based events for professional, networking, and career development.
- American Business Women’s Association (ABWA): This group unites female business owners and entrepreneurs and promotes growth through education and networking.
- eWomen Network, Inc.: This is an online-based network that supports women-owned businesses and professionals.
The Future of Women in Business Leadership
Women have spent many decades in the shadows of men in business, but the climate is changing. As more women enter the business field, they bring with them a fresh set of skills and talents to a male-dominated industry.
Women’s involvement in business has been changing the industry in massive ways, and as more and more women are given opportunities in this field, it will continue to do so to great benefit of the companies they’re employed with. After all, the research proves that the global economy — and the world — is all the better for it.
Angelica Leicht is the schools editor at Best Value Schools who oversees our college rankings, school profiles, and other higher education coverage. She previously served as an education reporter at Kearney Hub, and an editor at the Dallas Observer and Houston Press. Her writing has appeared in Affordable Colleges Online, Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, and elsewhere.
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