By Christine Wilson

09 November 2015 - 17:35

'The social enterprise sector is at risk of being dismissed in a male-dominated world.'
'The social enterprise sector is at risk of being dismissed in a male-dominated world.' Photo ©


The social enterprise sector might be considered progressive when it comes to placing women in leadership positions, but there's still some way to go, argues the British Council's Christine Wilson.

Data about women and social enterprise doesn’t tell the whole story

‘I’m not a feminist, I believe that there is a glass ceiling’, says my former English teacher, Vivienne Durham, now head teacher at an independent girls’ school in London. Her words are splashed in papers across the UK at a time when I am considering the notion that the social enterprise sector helps women to shatter it…the glass ceiling, that is.

There is an appetite at the moment for dialogue about women in work, and especially leadership positions. The FTSE 100 – an index composed of the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange – shows that only three per cent of the chief executives of these companies are female. However, the publication of the most recent Davies review, which examines gender balance on FTSE 250 boards – the next 250 largest companies after the FTSE 100 – shows that the ratio of men to women in these companies is 74:26, though still fairly dismal, this figure is positive when compared to the data from the FTSE 100 index. That is not saying much, though. However, the situation is not totally dire – research by Social Enterprise UK shows that twice as many women run social enterprises than mainstream small businesses.

Data about women in the field of social enterprise is encouraging. 38 per cent of social enterprise leaders are women, and 91 per cent of social enterprises have at least one woman on their senior team. Compared to the world of mainstream business, where almost half of small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) have male-only leadership teams, this could be cause to celebrate.

Social enterprises are paving routes for progression for women in the UK; Blackburne House, for example, equips low-paid or unemployed women with the skills to progress into employment in technical professions where women are traditionally under-represented. In India, the British Council’s work with DIAGEO is providing master training to female social entrepreneurs who then go on to train other women in core entrepreneurial skills. India has low rates of female employment, and this training not only provides women with business skills, but also introduces positive female role models to a new generation of social entrepreneurs. The development community has recently been lamenting the curse of the all-male panel

There is still a distinct lack of gender diversity in social enterprise leadership, and something must be done to ensure genuine opportunity for wider participation in the sector. Saying that social enterprise alone can shatter the glass ceiling would not address the complexity of the issue.

Obstacles to managing and growing one’s business effectively

When I discussed the topic of social enterprise with Servane Mouazan, CEO of Oguntê, which brings together women social entrepreneurs, she was direct: 'There’s no point asking whether social enterprise enables women to be successful in business without thinking about what success means', she said.

So here’s another definition of success – the ability to manage and grow one’s business effectively. Data from WEStart – the first research project on women’s social entrepreneurship in Europe – showed that limited access to finance, followed by a lack of time, were the main problems for female-led social enterprises. Women running social enterprises face the same issues as their peers in mainstream businesses – trying to strike a balance between life and work. According to data from the 2013 European Social Survey, 70 per cent of the total time heterosexual couples spend on housework is done by women, and nearly two thirds by women who work more than 30 hours a week.

There is a danger for women in the sector getting stuck in certain areas that are traditionally female

The We Start research also showed that female social entrepreneurs paid themselves less than their male counterparts – 25 per cent less. The gender pay gap in the UK, as of 2014, stood at 9.4 per cent. The reasons behind this are varied. More of the female-led social enterprises are in the start-up phase than well established, and this tends to keep wages down. Female social entrepreneurs often work in sectors that are historically populated by women such as social care and health, where income rates tend to be lower. A combination of budget cuts and the large-scale re-organisation of delivery mean that these leaders have had to face the challenge of significant change in the health and care sectors. They have been at the forefront of social enterprises taking on services traditionally provided by either the public or third sector.

The fact that these areas are traditionally female-led plays into the notion that the sector is a ‘natural home’ for females. Women are naturally more concerned by social purpose, more collaborative and more willing to sacrifice the high salaries of the corporate world, aren’t they? Or are we – men and women – socialised to think this way? There is a danger of women entrepreneurs being painted into a corner in the sector, and falling into ‘naturally female' spaces. But let’s make sure women continue to be heard in newer spaces, such as Tech For Good. This organisation, co-founded by my colleague Beatrice Pembroke, uses the power of technology to enable better decision-making, help people to access information or just connect with each other.

As well as challenges in accessing finance, leading women social entrepreneurs, such as June O’Sullivan, the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation, the UK’s largest childcare social enterprise, report routinely experiencing gender discrimination in the world of work. Female social entrepreneurs are often ‘patted on the head in a patronising way', she says. Is that because they are women, or because social enterprise still isn't taken seriously in some quarters?

This month, I am going to Malta to speak about women in the social enterprise sector at the Women’s Forum of Commonwealth Heads of Government. Despite this, the Business Forum, happening just a few hundred metres away, which has the overarching theme of ‘a more prosperous Commonwealth’, has only invited four women to deliver keynote speeches, despite having 32 slots. And while there will be one session on how the private sector can support the achievement of the new United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the rest of the agenda looks like business as usual – trade, finance, infrastructure, technology.

The sad truth is that if we overplay females’ ‘natural’ affinities for social enterprise, the sector becomes at risk of being dismissed in a male-dominated world. I want to see women succeed in social enterprise and for the sector to flourish, but not as a nice add-on to the world of mainstream business. Why should we continue to buy into the stereotype that women are collaborative, for example, while masculine values are more often associated with leadership, as Irene van Staveren noted in the Lehman Sisters hypothesis? Men and women, and how they behave when doing business, is much more complicated.

The sector should be challenging the norms

The sector’s contribution to the economy has been valued at over £24 billion, and that can’t be ignored. Social enterprise can and should challenge social and business norms across the board. Let’s continue to show the impact social enterprise has on the wider economy – it can create jobs, inclusive communities and broader social networks that make it possible for people to trust each other. Let’s build on the sector’s successes – being strategic, robust, and brave – that’ll shatter the glass ceiling for everyone. Let’s keep pushing to see social enterprise not just outperform business as usual; let’s see it become business as usual.

Christine Wilson will be speaking on the women and social development panel at the Women’s Forum of the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Malta on 22-24 November 2015.