Jeremy Lang, Regional General Manager: Inland West of Business Partners, is quick to point out that in order to reach this parity South Africa still needs more female entrepreneurial role models. He says that the signs are however encouraging and highlight that a 50-50 participation of men and women on a more-or-less equal business playing field is no longer a distant dream.
In the last financial year, no less than 41.63% of Business Partners’ investments had been to female entrepreneurs. In line with a slow but steady annual increase, it was slightly higher than the previous financial year in which 41.16% of investments were allocated to women. The rise in lending to women is mostly as a direct result of increased numbers of quality applications received by Business Partners from female business owners.
Lang says although Business Partners’ conscious decision to empower women entrepreneurs plays a slight role in boosting the figure, there is no doubt that the trend has to do with the steady rise of the female entrepreneurs in society in general.
Apart from increased numbers, Lang says several other trends are apparent in the rise of South African business women. “Scarcely a decade or two ago, women-owned businesses were mostly found in retail and service businesses, sectors with generally low barriers to entry. Today, increasing numbers are to be found in the last vestiges of male dominance, such as engineering, manufacturing and transport.”
He also sees increasing numbers of opportunity seekers among female entrepreneurs nowadays, as opposed to those who got into business because they had no other choice – so-called necessity entrepreneurs who are in business because it is the only way in which they can make a living and fend for their family. “Opportunity enterprises are generally more entrepreneurial and tend to be more successful than necessity businesses.”
There are two main factors driving the steady increase of women-owned businesses, says Lang. “The first is steadily rising educational achievements and training in fields traditionally reserved for men. The second is rising levels of work experience in an increasingly wider range of sectors. Importantly, their work histories nowadays include more middle- and top-management experience, which is often an important component of the success of an entrepreneur.
“Most entrepreneurs start businesses in the industry in which they have had work experience, and it is most likely that women entrepreneurs’ penetration of traditionally male industries are foreshadowed by their rise as employees in those industries first.”
Lang says South Africa’s system of Black Economic Empowerment, which recognises women as having been previously disadvantaged, has certainly contributed to increasing numbers of female entrepreneurs by putting more business opportunities within their grasp.
He believes that such efforts to advance women business owners must continue as the playing field is not yet level. “Women still face major challenges in balancing their work lives with motherhood and taking care of their families. Men’s participation in domestic tasks may be getting better, but the role of child rearing still falls largely on the shoulders of females in business-owner families.
There are indications that the open discrimination of women in the business world of the past is busy subsiding, says Lang. “In the 2013 SME Growth Index, a South African survey that tracks the lives and businesses of 500 entrepreneurs in the manufacturing and tourism industries, female business owners report that discrimination is less of an issue than it was in the past.”
There is still however a steep hill to climb. “Apart from bridging the gap between the current 41% female lending rate to a norm of at least 50% for Business Partners, the business world still does not feature or celebrate enough high-powered female entrepreneurs in the class of Richard Branson, Mark Shuttleworth and Patrice Motsepe.”
Most of today’s women business owners are so-called lifestyle entrepreneurs who aspire towards independence and the self-actualisation of being your own boss. Few are empire builders that give rise to economy-changing businesses such as Google and Microsoft. Lang however believes that, as long as opportunities remain open, female entrepreneurial experience grows and role models keep on increasing, it is just a matter of time.