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Is flexibility the mother of invention?

Updated Monday, 4th August 2008

Enterprising mums are choosing to leave employment behind and start their own business. Is flexibility the mother of invention?

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There’s a lot of talk these days about flexible working, work-life balance and portfolio careers. Crèche-at-work schemes, job-shares and flexi-time have become commonplace. If so much is being done to help women be part of the work force why are women, especially mothers, turning away from traditional jobs, and becoming entrepreneurs?   

Mum at work Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Photos.com Can you balance working and children? More and more mothers are.

Mothers who do run their own business make an important contribution to the UK economy, £4.4 billion according to a recent estimate in a study commissioned by the Yellow Pages. This shows that the difference between the sexes when it comes to entrepreneurial ambition isn’t as wide as we may think. Many women in paid employment choose to set up their own businesses upon parenthood, not because they are unemployable but rather because it’s a lifestyle choice. Indeed, most were in other, more traditional, types of employment positions before starting up their businesses. As with most entrepreneurs, setting up their own business is often centered upon the drive to be their own boss, and, importantly, the flexibility that this gives.

Two reasons appear to dominate women’s decisions to start-up their own businesses after they become mothers. The first of these is the desire for greater flexibility and autonomy. This is a great incentive for women, despite the fact that the demands of juggling your own business with the pressures brought on by motherhood and a hectic home life can be very challenging. The second is the difficulty, or perceived difficulty, of returning to the jobs they held previously.

This issue recently came under the spotlight when legislation was introduced in April 2007 extending maternity leave entitlements. Whilst aimed at protecting the rights of mothers, as Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said in July 2008, it had the unintended consequence of alienating some employers such as small business owners who see women of childbearing age as potentially a costly problem.

The legislation views women as primary child carers, which may stereotype the roles of women rather than improve the flexibility of working arrangements for both parents. This is compounded by the unhelpful views of some high profile businessmen. For example, Sir Alan Sugar of The Apprentice fame reportedly stated that many employers discarded the CVs of women of childbearing age. These scare stories can surely be seen as ‘push’ factors for women to go it alone in business.

The need for flexibility is reflected by the types of businesses that are established by women when compared to men. Men tend to opt for start-ups in construction, consultancy or IT. Popular choices for self-employed women are also start-ups in IT. In addition, they make more traditional choices in the areas of health and beauty, catering and childcare-related fields where flexibility and the link between their personal and professional interests are more apparent. However, about a third of all businesses started by mothers are now internet-based, showing the invaluable role of modern technology in enabling more flexible career strategies involving home working.

Websites such as elance have encouraged a boom in employing virtual administrators and PAs (personal assistants) who are based on the other side of the world, remotely organising clients’ emails and diaries, and booking meetings and travel all at a distance. More often than not these are mothers, who are being inventive with regards to the type of work they can accomplish from home.

FriendsReunited creator, Julie Pankhurst, founded the website in 1999 while expecting her first child. This business was sold for £175m in 2005. We should champion the successes of such high-profile female entrepreneurs who turn large profits, but also the large number of women who are small and micro business owners. My own research on home based businesses, such as small hotels and bed and breakfasts, shows that flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to combine home and family with rewarding work are important for women at all stages in their lives. As one such business owner explained to me:

“It works for me. I can fit other things in more easily now like the kids, and family and friends … just spending more time doing what I want to do and working from home. Although it’s a lot of hard work, you get used to that the longer you run a business. It’s very rewarding to have a successful business which is all your own work. I’m very proud of that… It just makes sense really for many women” 

However, when looking at entrepreneurs who want to combine parenthood with a rewarding career, it is important that we are not gender-biased. Some men also choose to start their own businesses while seeking to balance childrearing with career aspirations. The current economic downturn may make credit harder to come by for future entrepreneurs of both genders causing a decline in ‘mumpreneurs’. Let us hope that this doesn’t happen and that we continue to benefit from the boom in tycoon mothers – oh, and let’s not forget the fathers! 

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