On the 17th January, I spoke at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis about how the government was penalising entrepreneurs with the punitive Capital Gains Tax, and thus limiting our competitiveness against the UK.
I was struck by the enthusiasm and warmth that seemed to accompany the fact that I – as a female in the mostly male dominated arena that is politics – was able to speak passionately and with conviction on the matter, having had my own experience of starting a business with Lir Chocolates.
However, a vague sense of unease accompanied me as I left the Ard Fheis, and it has only been after some thought that I understand the reason for this.
It really hit home to me that many women entering politics (and a lot of men for that matter) do not have a whole lot of previous experience of having managed big budgets and overheads, as well as having the responsibility of hundreds of employees whose livelihoods depend on every decision they make.
The long hours, the pressure, the rows, the highs, the lows – all of these can be experienced daily by an entrepreneur, and the experience gained from starting or being involved in a business from an early stage can be of real value for someone entering into the cauldron that is national politics.
I am certainly not saying that owning or managing a company should be a pre-requisite for a political career in government.
But I do think that when making policies that directly shape the future of entrepreneurship in this country and thus have a hugely positive impact on our society in terms of job creation and better standard of living –having a level of corporate management experience is something that can only be of benefit to the Irish public.
And this is what lead me to my sense of unease; the fact that entrepreneurship plays such an important role in giving us hope for the future, and yet this government is not enabling fair opportunities for women entrepreneurs.
To me, it is simple – if half of your workforce is not being given equal opportunity, you are not being efficient in maximising your opportunity for growth; both in terms of business development and also in giving potential future political players the experience that is needed in high pressure environments.
And this is why it baffles me that the government is not prioritising the issues that women entrepreneurs face – it screams of naivety and lack of simple business nous.
I recently was a rapporteur for a report on the key issues that women face for Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Going forward, this sort of lop-sidedness cannot be simply accepted, and we need real action and urgency in addressing this imbalance to ensure that we are giving ourselves the best chance of a sustainable recovery.
Here are 5 of the key obstacles that women entrepreneurs currently face when it comes to entrepreneurship in Ireland.
1. Culture, Human Capital and Education:
The GEM report14 (http://www.gemconsortium.org/report) shows us that when it comes to positively viewing entrepreneurship capabilities only a third of women believe that they are capable, as opposed to half of men.
This is why it is hugely important that women have role models for inspiration –and that is why more needs to be done in terms of promoting our women entrepreneurs – especially those who graduate from the Enterprise Ireland High Potential Start-Up programme.
Women like (Theresa Keady of EVEO Solutions & Emma Murphy of The Turning Institute) are success stories from the programme, and the more that these success stories can be given a platform, the quicker this can be addressed.
2. Maternity Leave:
There is no doubt that currently there is a debilitating discrepancy between the qualifying conditions for Maternity Benefit for employees as opposed to women who want to set up their own businesses.
Two key points are emerging here:
- The female entrepreneur must have 52 weeks contributions in a relevant tax year compared with 39 weeks for an employee (33% more)
- The female entrepreneur must give 12 weeks’ notice of their intention to commence maternity leave compared with 6 weeks for an employee (100% more notice).
It is this type of unjoined up thinking in government that is just plain wrong, effectively punishing and holding women back from taking the leap into entrepreneurship.
3. Access to Finance:
Access to finance remains a difficult and daunting prospect for women entrepreneurs.
An interesting finding from the report was that women understand the economic potential and business value of other woman’s’ ideas, and that women respond strongly to financial incentives and programmes specifically organised for, and directed to them.
This is why I think there are 3 main areas that the government really needs to act upon:
- The funding for the Competitive Start Fund for Females with funding of €500,000 should be doubled each year in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and a second call for applicants should be made to ensure that none of our female talent slip through the net due to lack of funds.
- A specific Female Seed and Early-Stage Seed Capital Fund should be initiated by Enterprise Ireland, managed by women and investing between €100,000 and €600,000 in emerging companies so that a total fund of €25 million would support around 50 female-led companies over a 5 year period. These types of funds are essential for growth and more importantly, job creation.
- Business Angel networks have been established in most regions with the encouragement of IBAN (Irish Business Angel Network) and it is critical that a number of specific Female Business Angel networks be actively promoted in the regions by IBAN, to ensure that there is no discrimination based on where you live for women entrepreneurs.
4. Entrepreneurial Networks and Mentoring:
There is no doubt that the significance of female networks such as Network Ireland, Women in Technology and Science (WITS) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISER) has had a hugely positive impact in terms of supporting women in business and enterprise in Ireland.
However, we must continue to push and strive for the extension of female business networks at a regional and county level.
Enterprise Ireland has had great success over the years in terms of offering mentoring programmes – and we need to ensure that women will not be held back by lacking the guidance or expertise to assist them in such areas as finance and viral growth capabilities.
5. STEM Subjects
The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) at secondary school level have become a crucial skillset to give our students the best chance of having an exciting career in multinational and growth Irish companies.
Students are at a real disadvantage in pursuing courses and careers that they want to pursue at third level without having the solid grounding that a secondary level education in these subjects would bring about.
And while this is a challenge that faces both boys and girls, and despite the advances made in the curriculum, it is one that still particularly affects girls.
There are key negative stereo types that need to be overcome – none more so than were highlighted in the survey carried out by Accenture that showed the barriers facing young girls and parents when it comes to making choices about STEM related subject in schools.
The survey found that barriers existed such as:
- STEM subjects are more suitable for boys and that the subjects are overly difficult,
- Parents lack information on STEM career options, yet parents are the main influencers when it comes to advising their daughters on how to define educational and career paths.
A follow up Accenture report also found that while 80% of girls saw that studying STEM subjects led to a lot of exciting career options, 48% thought that these subjects match “male” jobs.
It is this type of inbuilt – and more importantly WRONG assumption – that should be a serious cause for concern for the government.
A national campaign needs to be initiated – that informs not just the girls, but the parents and teachers too of the value and indeed interest and enjoyment that girls can get from these subjects.
Breaking down these barriers are a must if we are to fulfil our female’s potential in bringing about further growth and job creation, at the earliest possible stage.
The good news when I look at these barriers is that a lot of these current issues are very solvable.
The bad news is that this current government seems to be ignoring the fact that there are barriers there in the first place, which is a huge cause for concern.
In a time when we most need up and coming women entrepreneurs to shine, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that we do not stifle them.
I firmly believe that some of these women – who along with bringing value and growth to the economy through job creation – will enter politics at some point.
The experience that they will have garnered in setting up a business, managing budgets, looking after employees is something that can only be of a huge benefit when making decisions that potentially affect their constituents and indeed all Irish citizens if they manage to get into office.
This basic business experience is something, which unfortunately not many in this current government can say they have. The least they can do is to ensure that this path to experience is not hindered by bureaucracy or lack of forward thinking, and it is something that I have been seeking and campaigning to bring about, and will continue to do so.
As I said earlier, it is simple – if half of your workforce is not being given equal opportunity, you are not being efficient in maximising your opportunity for growth, both in terms of business development and also in giving potential future political players the experience that is needed in high pressure environments.
Let’s right this wrong before it is too late.