The cost of being a woman in business

Let's talk about how gender inequality leads to women starting businesses

Do you cringe when you see #BossBabes or #Mumpreneur? Feel icky when you see a post in a business forum asking for help, followed by "PM me hun, I've got an opportunity that can help".

Essential oils, spices and seasonings, skincare, vitamins, weight-loss shakes, nutrition, make-up, kitchenware. Most of us have had a dabble at an MLM party at some point of our lives, and lots have succumbed to the lure of the money-earning potential dangled by a very engaging party host.  

women in the background of a table set for nibbles and drinks

Reality isn't very often that lucrative though. Friends and family aren't the untapped sales potential imagined, parties are harder to convince people to hold when there is an expectation of sales, and there is always that unexpected pressure of having to recruit people to "join the team".*

I think all women are impacted by multi-level marketing businesses at some point.  Mostly at the early part of their parenting journey, when the money starts to get a bit tighter for their family.  Usually that coincides with the expiry of any parental leave payments they've received, but sometimes it's when they realise that their time on parental leave is coming to an end and soon they'll need to bundle up their babe for daycare, while they return back to their pre-baby worklife.  

Only, upon doing the math they realise that this need to return to the workforce is going to cost them significantly; not just in time with their precious bundle, but in reduced work hours to meet daycare open hours, extra fuel/parking costs (usually aligned with those daycare hours), and even with the potential added "bonus" of Government funded family payments (if their partners income doesn't put them over the threshold to be eligible), they're sometimes financially worse off than if they had stayed home with baby - but mentally they need to go back to work.

Believe it or not, this is not a post about MLM businesses.

Yes women can "have it all", but too often that comes at the cost of having it all.
All the responsibility, without equal financial recognition.
That's especially true when we enter the age of parenthood.

  • Primary (unpaid) caregiver.
  • Career on hold.
  • Juggling a return to paid employment.

Trying to find the balance of a role that will cover the bills, within the hours of school (which is never 9-5, its barely 9-3) enabling time to travel, and will cover teacher only days, school holidays & the endless sickness.

I'll put my hand up and admit that before I became a parent, I resented the fact that so many of the women I worked with always sought leave over school holiday dates. It annoyed my sense of entitlement to fairness, fairness to everyone else that might also want those days off. 

I never considered the impact of not getting those "holidays".

The cost of afterschool care and holiday programs on an hourly rate aren't really awful, but the cost adds up when you're a parent of multiple.

kids playing on a mat with toy cars

Don't forget about those needing to work before their kids hit the ripe age of 5 years old. That is if you can find a day-care that has spaces available and won't cost more than the salary you are going to receive each week (plus the cost of transport). For the first three years, day care isn't subsidised and under two's are harder to find spaces for - parents in this age bracket are really doing it tough financially and mentally.

And for those women that aren't able or don't aspire to become parents; there is the judgement they face because they don't conform to a societal expectation of homemaker.

Why is it always the women making the sacrifices?
Well it isn't.
But it is more often women, and that's the issue. We automatically assign (or take on) this traditionally gendered role, at significant cost to ourselves.

Nothing can prepare you for the true cost of raising children, not just financially. It is physical and mental exhaustion. It is depleting from every angle.

And no, we're not the only ones experiencing this struggle. But women typically have the societal expectation of being the primary caregiver AND the homemaker. And if we also work, that's just another ball to juggle amongst those expectations. Yes our partners might contribute equally, but society doesn't expect them to and therein lies the problem.

Until we stop equating women with domestic obligations, until we stop saying stupid shit like "she chose to take time off to have kids while some of us worked hard to get to where we are", we will continue to have inequality.

The most common penalty women face?  It's gender inequality.

What is gender inequality?

It's a social phenomenon, where people are not treated equally based on their gender.  In Western society, there is a pervasive behaviour of treating women as the "fairer" or "weaker" sex, 

Gender roles are assumed early in life, with girls typically being assigned the identity of feminine and caring - even when that isn't an intentional act by those that care for them.  That translates into disadvantage throughout life, even when that is not immediately obvious to others.

What the hell has this got do with business?

The same thing it's got to do with the lure of multi-level marketing.  When women lose financial freedom, we lose ourselves. That's especially true when we become parents.  So we look for ways to regain that freedom. 

Western society has pushed us into this no-win situation where we are expected to sacrifice ourselves to succeed.  

You wanted the vote so we'll give it to you.  Equal rights? Sure, you can have that too.  Seeing as you want it all, you can have it all.  But, we're not going to take anything away, so find a way to deal with it.  Men aren't asking for their burden to be taken away.

We're going to support you by promoting successful women that have careers and children and financial freedom, and we'll do that to make you feel like you need to spend money to make money.  If you can't achieve that and feel like a failure, that's on you.

Ok, that might be extreme, but actually that's also a lot how it feels sometimes.

But it doesn't have to be that way.  To run a business, alongside having kids, without sacrificing yourself.  

Running your own business can be that freedom.  But it requires a rethink of the definition of traditional success, as well as support from others.

How businesses can change society

A business of any size can break the mould of the traditional business model and be more inclusive, and it doesn't have to be expensive or complicated.

  • By extending parental leave to all parents (not just the birthing parent), both in eligibility and in timeframe, you can promote shared responsibility for care. That reduces inequality.
  • By removing limits to sick leave, you acknowledge that working parents typically use up their leave quota on their kids, leaving them none for themselves. Removing limits to sick leave doesn't mean that everyone will take advantage of this. The statistics on this, show time and again that people value trust and make good decisions based on it.

    That one's also promoting good health and wellbeing in the workplace, as people aren't penalised for being unwell, so they can afford to stay home to rest and not spread their illness around the workplace.
  • Having policies that cover culture and gender equity go a long way to reducing inequalities. These are things that seem unnecessary to many, but, again, the statistical evidence shows that when gender and culture are laid out as important factors in decision making, representation is fairer on everything from hiring, to governance to pay.
  • Flexible working hours, and options to work from home, is something more businesses should consider.  Especially if that business operates online/by phone.  Being able to do school/day-care pick-up/drop-off during the working window is a value that cannot be underestimated until you've not been able to align a job with your parental responsibilities. 

But what if I don't employ people?

There are so many alternative pathways to creating an inclusive business.

If you want to create positive impact, you can and should still have workplace policies that cover inclusion and how you value diversity and equity in the workplace. At the end of the day, every business is human-centred. If you don't have employees you still have customers (and suppliers). Your policies cover how you deal with people on any level. 

If you want to go a step further, then as a business owner you could create a program that smashes the inequality barriers for others. 

  • Perhaps you've got a coaching business, you could set a priority focus on the causes that align to your values and every quarter you set aside five-percent of hours to gift to those causes. That could be via pro-bono coaching, or it could be volunteering in organisations that align to those causes.
  • Perhaps you've got a retail business that you finally feel confident in. You've learned some really tough lessons along your journey and you could write a book about what you should and shouldn't do. Maybe you choose to write that book, or maybe you choose to mentor some business students in the practical side of retail. It takes a brave person to uplift others that could potentially wind-up as a competitor, but time and again we see those kinds of businesses succeed because this very attitude creates community mindedness, and that inspires others to support rather than compete against.
  • Maybe you're a business owner that has finally met profit goals and would like to help others out financially. You could donate a random sum to a charity you align with, or you could create a giving program that directly relates to your business. That could be anything from volunteering your time and expertise, to specifying a percentage of revenue / profit to specific charities on a regular basis.

What if I'm still struggling at the start of my own business journey?

Oh look, I hear you.  It's hard enough working out what you need to do without thinking of supporting others.
But the way you shape your business can also reduce inequality for other people.

  • Talk about the difficulties you face, share how you overcome these.  That shows others that they're not alone and gives them courage to address their own.
  • Plan for your success. Define your own version of what success looks like with big picture thinking (vision board it if you're that kind of person, or just write down your dream goals).  Then break that down into smaller chunks for goals over the next month, quarter, year, three-five years.  Once you have those, work backwards to create an action plan and budget for making those actions happen.
  • Outsource things.  This one requires a bit of a reality check. If you're at the start of your own business journey you might not have funds to invest in outsourcing work (and, actually, you should have a plan to get a return on the investment you spend on outsourcing work to others), but you could free up time to spend on your business by paying for housekeeping, meal prep, or even your laundry to others, at a lower cost than of business support.
  • Shun "hustle culture" and talk loudly about that.  Work "real hours" that fit with caring for your kids.  Tell people you do this.  Put boundaries in place around work and "real life".  Sure you might have to work after hours in the beginning, but as your journey progresses, this will happen less often.
  • Get good business habits in place, create policies for your business that talk about how you do business (including with other people) and uphold those values.  
  • Learn what inclusive business is, and shape yours as one.

Inclusive business requires doing more than "Inspiring Inclusion" or any other range of naff hashtags that a business can share underneath a staged photo.

It's about daring to break the mould of "traditional" business and taking brave actions that will prioritise the human factor.

Because, whether you employ staff or have volunteers, whether you're online or bricks and mortar, every business is human-centred: Without people to supply to, you don't have a business.

Why wouldn't you care enough about that to take action?

Ok, let's address the elephant in the room:  Privilege.

I'm a white woman, tauiwi of European descent.  I've been middle-class all my life.  Raised in a home where both parents were present, a house that they owned while also owning and operating businesses.

I've never had to think about where my next meal is coming from, or if I have warm clothes, access to transport or electricity to heat our home.

I've had to consider what bills to pay next, and whether we can afford to buy items at the supermarket, but I've never had to choose between buying milk or keeping the lights on this month.  My kids know that we can't always afford things, but they've never had to consider that mum and dad can't afford to feed them. 

It isn't the presence of affluence or wealth that assigns privilege, but the absence of difficulties.  My life has not been particularly difficult, but I still have to choose everyday between my working opportunities and what my kids need.  

My husbands work does not enable him to be the primary caregiver, his hours start at 6am and finish at 6pm. That transfers all responsibility for parenting to me during the weekdays.   Any work I do needs to fit within the school window, and that means that when the kids are sick, or school closes, I lose the opportunity to do much of my work.

Still, I have the privilege to make alternative decisions on when and how I work because it is my business.  But that business flexibility was also borne out of necessity, because a paid role in another business did not provide the financial opportunity or flexibility that we required as a family.  

Gender inequality is a direct cause for the establishment of many women owned businesses

But not everyone has that privilege of the freedom to pursue that path.

This is the cause of the frustration (and sometimes, outrage) I feel at seeing the pinkwashing by corporates choosing to align themselves to causes like International Womens Day, without doing the work to address the inequalities this day seeks to remove.  

Inequality doesn't require a lack of privilege in order to impact a person.  But the level of privilege definitely dictates what kind of impact is made.  

* This wasn't intended to be a post hating on MLM biz; they're not all dreadful.  But it is a great example of how people can be taken advantage of when a business doesn't prioritise diversity, equity and inclusion, but does value capitalism over the human factor.