Jonathan Guthrie: Sisters not doing it for themselves

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I had lunch recently with a group of entrepreneurs and private equity investors. It felt a bit like the Last Supper: 13 at the table and all blokes. There was nothing out of the ordinary in that. To put it politely, the UK is mediocre at involving women in enterprise. Or to put it brutally, British women are mediocre performers when it comes to setting up or backing businesses.

There will be plenty of soul searching about the phenomenon today, designated Women’s Enterprise Day during the current wing-ding of Enterprise Week, a celebration of go-getting initiated by the chancellor. The most telling measure comes from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey. It shows that in the UK there are only 46 women entrepreneurs for every 100 male counterparts. In the US, there are 90. Moreover, British women have a much higher propensity for self-employment than establishing companies.

Under-confidence could be the culprit. Rebecca Harding, director of GEM UK and an observer of gender in business, says: “There are real psychological barriers. Take a man and a woman with equivalent skills who are setting up businesses, and the man will be more confident.” It happens in big companies too, where female management trainees often appear to monopolise supplies of self-doubt, leaving rumbustious male rivals with a deficiency.

The example of the US leaves little scope for attributing under-confidence to the supposed gender differences some commentators use to explain women’s low profile in high-visibility management jobs. For example Neil French, “creative guru” of WPP, was reported in October as saying that women did not get to the top in advertising because they were “crap”. He is now the ex-creative guru of WPP and should be penitently humming Aretha Franklin’s empowerment anthem “Respect”.

The Equal Opportunities Commission meanwhile boasts the perplexing slogan “Women. Men. Equal. Different”. Perhaps that should be “Women. Men. More Alike than Anyone Figured”. Women have babies and men settle disputes with fists or strategically deployed payloads of cluster bombs. But let us not quibble. Observable differences in thought processes are few, according to a recent paper in the journal American Psychologist.

Ms Harding says families and schools in the UK give girls less faith in their abilities than those in some other countries. In the workplace there is often an “invisible college”, she says, a male network fostered through drinking and sports talk. One end result is less female entrepreneurship. However, Ms Harding believes the balance will shift, as girls streak ahead academically and men take on more childcare.

Isabella Moore, chair of a panel on female enterprise convened by the Treasury and a small-company owner for 20 years, wants to give the whole system a helping kick up the behind. She proposes a commission championing stronger support for women entrepreneurs and better monitoring of their progress.

The UK needs another quango as little as feminists once claimed a woman needed a man or a fish needed a bike. But appealingly, Ms Moore’s commission would self-destruct after a fixed period, like the tape player in Mission Impossible. And it might shed new light on low female enterprise rates. It seems a modest proposal, given that there have been independent inquiries into practically everything else.

One problem the Moore commission could ponder is a purported lack of role models. Anita Roddick, the founder of Body Shop, is often cited, but her glory days of yomping through the jungle seeking witchetty grubs to pound into cleansing facial balm were two decades ago. Some potential modern exemplars rule themselves out through their Garboish distaste for publicity, such as Linda Bennett of the fashion business L.K. Bennett. In contrast, Jackie Gold, chief executive of Ann Summers, talks freely about turning a tiny niche retailer into a national chain. But prudishness hampers public appreciation of a woman whose best sellers include a vibrator called Rampant Rabbit.

I asked Michelle Mone, Glaswegian founder of the MJM lingerie company, to name a few role models for women entrepreneurs. She cited Richard Branson, Tom Hunter and Philip Green. Under-confidence could be a problem for women, she admitted, but added: “They should stop getting the violins out and saying I can’t do this or that because I am a woman.”

A similarly brisk message came from Sahar Hashemi, co-founder of the Coffee Republic café chain, who now combines a speaking career with running Skinny Candy, a confectionery start-up. She said: “The main barrier is not now [discrimination], but a lack of motivation among women. It pisses me off when people blame inequality. Women should just get on with it.”

The comments of Ms Mone and Ms Hashemi were reminiscent of the handbaggings Margaret Thatcher administered to “moaning Minnies” in the 1980s. They will go down badly with the ginger groups who promote female business ownership through such initiatives as Women’s Enterprise Day. But the pair have a point. Enterprise, if it is anything, is about taking responsibility for your choices, not blaming them on someone else. If I was a woman contemplating a start-up, I might well want the extra support Ms Moore proposes. But the robust positive attitude of Ms Mone and Ms Hashemi would be indispensable.

See a video interview with Michelle Mone at www.ft.com/mone

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