Sexual harassment is one of the many obstacles women entrepreneurs face as they try to grow small businesses into bigger enterprises, as pointed out in a new report, “Tackling the Gender Gap: What Women Entrepreneurs Need to Thrive,” released today by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Women start businesses in record numbers, but they’re not growing their businesses at nearly the same rate as men. What’s holding them back? What could help them grow? Those issues are being tackled by the report prepared by minority staff of that Senate Committee.
“It’s important for us to encourage women to succeed. When women succeed, their families succeed…It’s in the interest of everyone in this country to ensure that women can be successful.”
American women are clearly entrepreneurial. The numbers bear that out: women own 11.6 million businesses, 39% of all firms, and start businesses at a rate five times faster than the national average.
But they face many obstacles in trying to scale those businesses into larger enterprises, keeping them from reaching their full potential. As a result, women-owned businesses employ only 8% of the private workforce, generate only 4% of business revenues, and a mere 2% have more than $1 million in revenues.
The report focuses on three main areas needing to be addressed to help women grow their companies:
- Increasing positive role models and mentors for girls and women
- Overcoming the gender pay gap for working women
- Eliminating unequal access to financial capital for women
The Senate Committee report highlights sexual harassment as one aspect contributing to the gender pay gap. As America grapples with the extent of sexual harassment in all fields—business, government, technology, the media, even including allegations against the man sitting in the White House—does this create a climate discouraging for women entrepreneurs?
“We know many women entrepreneurs still face sexual harassment in the business environment,” said Senator Shaheen. “Sadly, that’s been around for a long time. It’s higher profile now. But the upside is that women have felt empowered to come forward…They suddenly feel free to express themselves, to address what’s been a concern…It’s an opportunity to engage women.”
The report recommends a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment in the workplace, especially in the tech industry.
A long-standing obstacle for women entrepreneurs is their lack of access to the capital necessary to launch a startup or grow an existing company. As quoted in the report, women receive only two percent of venture capital funds.
“We don’t have enough women in financial firms in the country: banking, venture capital, in all of the financial institutions that have historically funded women,” said Shaheen. This lack of women in decision-making roles in financial institutions contributes to seeing women entrepreneurs as less worthy of financing. “I remember being at the University of New Hampshire back in the 1970s and learning about studies about the ‘cloning effect’ in hiring. You tend to hire people who are like you.”
“One of the challenges in the US in the next decade is not having enough talent, not having enough entrepreneurs, not enough workers,” said Shaheen. “This is a real opportunity for us. We need to start now. Lay the groundwork to make sure women have the support they need, lift some of the institutional barriers…That’s what we have to stay focused on.”
“By raising these issues, we have to encourage people to think about this…Part of the reason for this report is to raise awareness and break through those barriers.”
Today, many women can feel discouraged, especially with sexual harassment in the media every day, with proposed cuts in funding to programs that help women succeed. Is progress possible in this political climate?
“I look at my own daughters—both of whom have started their own businesses in the last five years—and they’re doing well,” said Shaheen. “Look at the number of women who turned out the day after the Inauguration for the Women’s March, who are continuing to be engaged, in their communities, in business…The way we make progress is to continue to keep people engaged. When women are engaged, they’ll change the policies to make sure that more women have a chance to succeed.”
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017
This article originally ran in USA Today on December 13, 2017