#IWD2019: Helping the business women who get left behind

When starting out in business, women will largely focus on areas where they feel most comfortable, but with the right support, they will grow, says Jane Binnion

There are more than 1,000 women on out-of-work benefits in the Lancaster district and an unrecorded number of women that do not show on the statistics. In this latter case, they tend to be women who are considered unavailable for work due to being, for example, carers.

Knowing that elsewhere in the world, investing in women is recognised as an effective way of tackling poverty (Kabeer 2012), we decided to offer pre-start-up and start-up programmes for women in low-paid work or on state benefits. 

We are the Growing Club, a small social enterprise based in Lancaster but which attracts women from all over North West England. We initially started by facilitating business growth programmes for women running micro-businesses as an experiment, because we saw that women who owned small businesses – which in fact accounts for most women in business – were not receiving any support. Over the last two years, we’ve supported more than 240 women with these programmes, as well as skills workshops and a weekly drop-in service.

In 2013, Maria Miller MP wrote: “To secure the recovery, we need to do more to maximise our competitiveness and harness female talent, both for the benefit of the UK economy and for the financial security of women and their families.”

As Rosa’s Four Pillars: Economic Justice report in 2015 highlighted, most female-led businesses are in the 5Cs: cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical work, whereas business support is mostly ring-fenced for high-growth businesses working B2B.

What was not, and is still not properly understood, is that women will largely start out in areas where they feel most comfortable, but with the right support, they will grow.

In fact, investing in women brings a good return. On International Women’s Day in 2003, Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said: “When women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life.” Similar results have been identified in the UK – in 2016, a Deloitte report showed that an increase in the rate of female-led new business to 10% would contribute £180bn to the UK economy by 2025.

How do we help female-led businesses?
The Growing Club has facilitated a number of pre-start-up courses, all funded by charitable grants and we have just received National Lottery Community Funding to run our second start-up programme.  We use a peer-based support model, which women find incredibly supportive as so many feel isolated: our programmes really help women find their confidence and reconnect with their skills and aspirations.

One successful course we are currently running is Sunflowers; a dedicated programme for women aged 50 upwards who are either unemployed, unwaged or facing redundancy. Redundancy is a huge challenge in the 50+ age bracket, due to limits and barriers in gaining further employment.

The biggest block for us at the moment is the Universal Credit system because even though we work closely with the local Jobcentres, Universal Credit is so new and we are seeing mistakes being made that impact women, including some not being referred to the New Enterprise Allowance scheme when they are entitled to be. Helping women with no capital to start businesses is hard enough and this has had the biggest impact on the morale of our course attendees and additionally, on our outcomes.

The Growing Club aims to ensure that through bridging the gap in business education for women, graduates from our programmes are running sustainable businesses, because the gig economy and zero-hours contracts are not long-term solutions for economic growth or for the wellbeing of women in business.

Jane Binnion is a qualified and experienced adult trainer and business owner who designs and delivers training based on joined-up thinking for sustainable business growth.