In 1988 — the year I was born— the Women’s Business Ownership Act was signed into law, making it possible for the first time for a woman to apply for a business bank loan without the requirement of a male relative to cosign. Since then, women’s entrepreneurship has continued to grow in the United States. Still, women-owned businesses comprise less than 40% of the businesses in the country, and most of those are single proprietors.
In 2017 at the age of 29, I cashed in my chips and founded a locally-focused, issue-driven communications firm. In doing so, I joined the many pioneering women who came before me who bet on themselves in the name of carving their own way and following their passion. I was hopeful. Zesty. I had an idealistic view of entrepreneurship. I had no idea the barriers to entry and barriers to success that female business owners face every day in their careers.
Perhaps the most disappointing blow to my idealism was getting uniquely acquainted with how nuanced misogyny in business can be. It’s often subtle. It often builds over time. It often resides in the shadows, protected by many of us who fear retaliation. It’s the extra scrutiny by boards, media, and stakeholders of women-run agencies or projects that men in like roles are not subject to. It can be perpetrated by other women who are also operating in a system that affirms that two women in leadership in the same industry cannot both be successful.
Women in the professional services industry — my industry — have an abysmal chance of reaching leadership levels. Less than 1% of professional service firms in the US have a female leader. There is still a popular narrative that women are not as suited for these positions because they have larger obligations at home, are more emotional and do not have the personality traits of men in these roles (self-assuredness, confidence, commanding authority, etc). However, women who exhibit these traits are often held back professionally, criticized for being abrasive, aggressive or confrontational. Worse, mothers are often blatantly passed over for leadership positions and miss out on professional opportunities after having children — despite research indicating they are exactly the type of person who should be in these roles.
My own experience during the start-up years of my company and in prior consulting roles has shed a lot of light on these often subtle, even indiscernible micro-aggressions against women. I’ve had contracts cut when I unapologetically refused to complete an unethical directive from a male client. My original business partner, a white man in his sixties, often had to redirect questions in meetings about projects I was running back to me. Well-meaning people regularly referred to him as my boss. I’ve had at least a couple of instances where a male business associate or client made suggestive statements, commented on my appearance, or outright propositioned me in a business meeting. As a young female entrepreneur, I adopted a polite response to inappropriate advances, often being overly accommodating and even self-deprecating, desperate to not destroy the ego of a potential client or partner.
Today, 42% of women-owned businesses in the United States are firms that have been operating for less than five years. This statistic doesn’t surprise me. The barriers to success for women in business, while sometimes initially undetectable, are everywhere. This week, through grit, hard work and the incredible fortune of having a great team, my small company is celebrating that five-year milestone. Getting here has been rewarding, challenging and full of the unexpected. I am proud. But, still I recognize that business culture across the US has not been willing to meaningfully look at the uncomfortable truths that make this milestone, or similar professional milestones, so hard to reach for women.
There are positive indications that women are persevering despite the roadblocks. The progress women in business have made in my lifetime is uplifting, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Gender equity is not simply putting a woman on a panel (but let’s keep doing that). It’s not only clapping politely at celebrations specifically designed to highlight women who’ve beaten the odds. It’s cultural. It’s done through action. It’s deeply personal. And, it must be tackled with intention by every single one of us.
Traditionally, I am not the expert voice. In my profession, I am generally behind the scenes. However, as I look to the next five years of doing business as a woman, I am committed to being a steward of the changes needed in the areas I can control. I’m also committed to pulling this issue out of the shadows and confronting what is tough and even embarrassing to talk about. To the next generation of female leaders, this fight is for you.
Amanda Watson is president and founder of Atlas Strategic Communications.