Flexibility, multi-tasking and the ability to match lifestyle and work issues are among the reasons many women are finding a natural place in the workforce. Jane Nelson talks to a number of working women who have got the balance right.
When Brisbane-based photographer Katrina Christ employed her first full-time staff member she found herself putting her work aside one day to spend an hour-and-a-half consoling the employee who was having difficulties at home.
She says that as a woman, she knew that she had to take the time to talk with her employee. Being sensitive to the needs of employees and taking the time to talk with them is just one factor that makes women so successful in business, she says.
My husband often says he couldn’t be a boss dealing with staff because it would drive him insane and he would just want to get on with his work, says Christ, whose family portrait business is about to be franchised. She was also nominated for a second year running as a finalist in the Telstra Small Business Awards.
I guess there are times when I am frustrated by it, but I know that I have to do it. Women are always much more sensitive and they are more understanding than men if someone is having problems at home.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, released in April, show women account for 33 per cent of all small business operators nationally, while in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, the number of new women operating small businesses grew at a faster rate than men. About 785,000 or 67 per cent of small businesses are home-based.
Women appear to be the major decision-makers in about 10 per cent of all small businesses in Australia.
The industries in which women represent the greatest proportion of employment are:
- Education (70 per cent)
- Health and community services (69 per cent)
- Personal and other services (58 per cent)
- Accommodation, cafes and restaurants (56 per cent)
Women’s representation was notable among resource managers (28 per cent) and miscellaneous specialist managers (43 per cent)* .
A range of recent surveys has indicated that a desire for work and family flexibility and an economic need for a second income are the main drivers behind the rise in the number of women choosing to run their own businesses.
But it is an ability to multiskill, strong communication skills and an empathy for customers and employees combined with sharp business brains that ensures these women not only stay in business, but thrive.
Maxine Horne, co-owner and Chief Operating Officer of telephone retailing business Fone Zone, says the nurturing nature of women gives them a much greater chance of succeeding in business than men. It means women are far superior at getting the most out of their employees, she says.
Any successful business is successful because it has looked after its people. When you look at all the other things the products, the marketing they’re all in place, but what really makes a difference is how well you look after your people and women do that so much better than men, Horne says.
Women lead by example and we’re not afraid to get in there and do it and help out. We accept that things will go wrong. We operate more as coaches than managers.
Corporate Housing Chairperson Kay Barney combined a broad background in small business and strong financial skills to set up a business providing short-term rental accommodation to relocating executives and their families.
Initially based in Melbourne, Barney established a Sydney office in 2003 and now shares the Sydney workload with her husband, while business partner Chris Miller manages the Melbourne operation. She believes multiskilling is the clear advantage women have over men when it comes to business.
Women, particularly mothers, also have a greater determination to succeed than men in order to protect their ability to have flexibility when it comes to working hours and time management. It gives them an added incentive to succeed, she says.
It’s a well-known fact that women can focus on a few things at a time and certainly I think that a woman is capable of juggling those roles, says Barney, who is also the mother of three young children.
I know with my husband, when he’s working, he’s working and I don’t talk to him about anything else. Whereas I can be here sending an email off to a client and at the same time organising something for school or thinking what we’re going to have for dinner that night.
The ability to multiskill does play a crucial part in running a successful business, she says.
Fone Zone’s Horne believes women tend to make decisions more quickly than men an attribute tied to multiskilling and this is one reason why she believes she is a more effective Chief Operating Officer than her husband.
Horne’s husband, David McMahon, is Fone Zone’s Chief Executive Officer and his role is focused on the strategic planning. Horne says they have always divided the business this way, but their roles have become more defined and more reflective of their individual skills as it’s grown.
David comes to me and says this is what we’re going to do and I say okay well this is how we’re going to do it. I really work more on the actual operations of how we implement the strategic plan.
Horne says a woman’s ability to quickly take in and respond to all the small details of a project also helps in this role and in running a business generally.
As a photographer, attention to detail is a crucial skill for Christ and one that she believes is a strong factor in the success of her business.
When I’m doing a shoot, I am always conscious of the details like a bra strap showing or a bit of hair poking up. I’ve noticed since I started my business that female photographers are so much better at picking up that sort of detail than men, Christ says.
I know my clients won’t like it so I jump in and fix it up. I know, as a woman, that my customers all want to look gorgeous. We are good at making people feel great about themselves and the guys don’t tend to think about it.
Successful businesswomen also tend to bring a significant level of passion and emotion to the running of a business that can also work to their advantage if it’s harnessed correctly.
I am an incredibly emotional person but I have learned over the years to steer it in the right direction; so that when I’m in a meeting and things don’t go my way I don’t burst into tears, Fone Zone’s Horne says.
But it’s that passion that makes us so good at what we do. You care about the outcome and I don’t think I really see that degree of passion in men.
It’s all about people skills, about how you get the best out of your people, and if they see that you care and that you cry when things go wrong, you end up with people doing things because they want to not because they have to. I think that’s a real skill that women bring to the table.
The right alternative
The number of successful businesses run by women will continue to grow with an increasing number of females seeing their own businesses as a more flexible alternative to full-time work in an office, particularly once they have children.
All three women interviewed for this article said they began their businesses because they wanted mental stimulation and they knew they would not be content to be stay-at-home mums.
They wanted to use the skills they had spent years building before they had children and enjoy the challenges and satisfaction their business offers.
I think a lot of women are like me and can’t stay at home seven days a week. I’m a better person when I’m working I think I’m a lot more fun and I enjoy my children so much more when I am with them, says photographer Katrina Christ, whose husband Andy Christ made the decision to be the stay-at-home parent to the couple’s three daughters when he realised how successful his wife’s business was.
Fone Zone co-founder Maxine Horne says while she often works 60-70 hours a week, the hours can be tailored to fit around her two children.
By running your own business you have that flexibility so when your child is sick you can go and get them or you can set up a crèche in the corner of your office, she says.
Horne, whose business employs 565 staff around Australia, set up a crèche in her office for her three-month-old son. She says she used to ask the suppliers she met with to wind up his swing on their way out of their meetings.
Some of them would look at me stupidly or with surprise and I would just say Just turn the handle’, Horne says with a chuckle. They used to look at me oddly and then they realised that I didn’t care what they thought and so they would wind up the swing.
Kay Barney, of Corporate Housing, says a lack of childcare places will push more women into setting up their own businesses.
There aren’t very many alternative solutions out there for women who want to work and there are plenty of us but who also want to spend some time with their families, she says.
It’s going to be a growing trend.
- Australia has 4,150,800 employed women.
- The labour force participation rate of all women (15 years and older) is 55.4 per cent.
- In 1982, women received 33 per cent of all income. By 1999-2000, this had increased to 38 per cent **.
- Women’s seasonally adjusted adult full-time average weekly ordinary time earnings in August 2002 were 85.1 per cent of men’s. Women’s average weekly full-time adult total earnings (which includes overtime) were 81.7 per cent of men’s.
- 41,232 women started postgraduate studies, 50.5 per cent of postgraduate commencements.
- 114,880 women started Bachelor degrees, 57.6 per cent of undergraduate commencements.
Women in Leadership
- Women hold more than 33 per cent of Australian Government Board positions under total Australian Government control (Appoint, June 2003).
Women of Achievement
- 198 or 35.8 per cent of the 2004 Australia Day Honours were received by women.
- Between 1977 and 1999, female life expectancy increased from 76.9 to 82 years.
** Source: ABS, Australian Social Trends, 2001
* Source: ABS Women in Australia 2001.