Bias, barriers and the battle for self-belief

Four young strong women or girls standing together. Group of friends or feminist activists support each other. Feminism concept, girl power poster, Lulu Wood, bias

Article by Hayley Brightmore, founder and director, Knight Transaction Services

Being a female founder in a male-led environment isn’t for the faint hearted.

But, starting a business in a male dominated sector, and in the middle of a pandemic, has taught me a few things about resilience. Here are my thoughts on the bias and barriers that women still face and how we can move beyond them.

The end of being ‘always on’ – the ‘always on’ attitude to work is finally starting to look outdated. While change was already happening, Covid-19 has accelerated this. The myth of presenteeism – that the more hours you spend in the office, the more successful you become – has been hugely detrimental to women. But, with flexible and hybrid working likely to be the norm from now on, there are opportunities for women to take advantage.

Working long hours is still prevalent in my sector, financial services – with deadlines not always conforming to the traditional 9-5. It’s unlikely this will disappear completely, but by trusting staff to manage their own time, outside commitments can be incorporated in and around working hours. This raises the ceiling for people juggling other priorities outside of the workplace, enabling them to work at the highest level at times that suit them better. With women still the primary caregivers in most cases, for example, flexibility opens up huge opportunities for them to make their career aspirations a more achievable reality.

Self-belief and barriers – self-belief can be powerful in breaking down boundaries. While there are barriers that are put in place by those around us, we’re certainly responsible for building some of them ourselves. Our lack of self-belief, or imposter syndrome, is a big one. There’s no easy route to self-confidence – but if you throw yourself in, the result will always be better than not trying. This might sound flippant, but business leaders have to be prepared to make decisions and take risks – you can only do this by trusting your own judgement.

I remember making a conscious effort to speak up and assert myself in meetings when I was younger – knowing that I’d never give myself a chance to be heard if I didn’t. That feeling you get when you notice a flicker of recognition is second to none and fuels your ability to value your own contribution.

Show us the money – Depending on which figures you choose to believe, only 2% of venture capital money goes to female startups and access to finance is one of the biggest barriers facing female entrepreneurs looking to grow. With investor panels themselves being so male dominated, bias – however unconscious – is likely to be at play here. This is particularly true if the business proposition is more tailored to a female market.

A piece in the FT last year quoted a female entrepreneur as saying ‘the venture capital industry is short-changing humanity’ because of the disproportionately large amount of money invested by male investors into companies run by men. Change here is a slow process, and it’s not an easy barrier to break down. But progress is being made and I would urge female founders to actively seek out an investment partner with more diversity around the table.

Valuing women throughout their careers – much has been written about how maternity leave and children impact a woman’s career path. There has been considerable change here, with more mothers getting to the top of their profession. But, while flexible working has been good news for women, the pandemic overall was not. A report from Forbes: Women @ Work: A global outlook looked at how female careers were affected during the pandemic. For the majority, their workload increased both at home and in the workplace – impacting mental health and ‘dampening their aspirations for the future’. With companies working hard to recruit and retain staff, accommodating the needs of women with young children is key to futureproofing the workforce.

This also applies to futureproofing the talent pipeline. For young girls, education and mentoring are key to aspiration and many more initiatives are emerging, focused on showing a clearer path to whatever career they may choose.

The next step is to tackle the barrier facing women later in their careers. According to a study carried out for Newson Health Research and Education, ‘99% of women felt their perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms led to a negative impact on their careers.’ One of the final taboos in the workplace, a lack of support during menopause forces many women out of leadership positions. But the experience that women have gained by their 40s and 50s is invaluable for the next generation of female leaders – benefitting both girls in school and young mothers – as well as bringing balance in the boardroom.

With women of all ages finding their voice, we have a real opportunity to believe in ourselves – from the day we walk out of school to the day we choose to stop working. 

Hayley BrightmoreAbout the author

Hayley is the founder of Knight Transaction Services and leads on transaction support projects.  Prior to founding Knight TS, Hayley gained ten years’ experience as a due diligence specialist, at Mazars and Grant Thornton. She has worked with a range of PE houses, banks and corporates, across multiple sectors.

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