The rise of women in Social Enterprise – Do Men Care?

The 2015 Skoll World Forum on Social Enterprise has just ended so it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on women’s growing contribution in social enterprise.

There have been plenty of articles recently discussing women and work. More specifically, the inequality they face when it comes to pay, conditions and even poverty.

Whether it’s women earning less than their male counterparts, the lack of women in executive positions (often well under 20%-30%), or the number of college educated women living in poverty. Men, as it were, more often than not end up on top.

Even at the Skoll World Forum, trawling through the list of speakers and awardees it’s clear there are more men on the line up.

Asked to name a social entrepreneur you might recall Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus, or those more in know, Ashoka founder, Bill Drayton or Blake Mykosie (Toms Shoes’ Founder), the poster boy for social business in the US.

Whilst women social entrepreneurs often litter the Top 10, 20 or 30 lists in magazines (think Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder & CEO of Acumen Fund), sadly, apart from Anita Roddick, founder of the Bodyshop, the average person will be hard pushed to think of one.

However, social enterprise is slowly bucking the trend. Social Enterprise UK have found that twice as many women run social enterprises compared to small business, with only a pitiful 3% in FTSE 100 companies. And it’s on the rise.

And we see this at _SocialStarters, with approximately 65% – 70% of applications weighted toward women.

Why is this?

It’s easy to suggest that women are the ‘carers and nurturers’ of the two sexes and prefer to connect emotionally with their work.

Rahul Verma, writer and editor for The Metro, Guardian, Independent, Vice UK and author of culture blog Storywaller got us thinking when he said:

“If you were to look at the caring professions in Britain – primary school teachers, charity sector, nursing, etc… men are in very short supply. And social enterprise – particularly abroad – is pretty close to charity/NGO/development so presumably it’s about breaking down those stereotypes…”

It’s also true that many of societies problems impact women greater than men. So it should be no surprise that these are the sorts of issues that women are passionately drawn to.  After all, social enterprise is not just about getting cash in the bank, its about creating social impact.

Passion is important but confidence is also key. Seeing a social problem and finding inventive ways to solve it requires empathy as well as the desire and balls to succeed. In The Confidence Gap, Kay and Shipman argue:

“…these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence”.

So perhaps a social enterprise has, in part, a different mind set to normal business, one which encourages women to flourish. In these environments it’s less about ego, who can shout the loudest, or who is topping this weeks sales charts. Often the real reward is seeing the many lives it touches and not just the balance sheet.

On their corporate website, social enterprise Belu water states “Belu’s way of doing business is not just driven by cost, but by the impact we have on our planet.”

Successful social enterprises combine at their core astute business and financial acumen but also plenty of heart. Or as John Elkington, the founder of British consultancy SustainAbility coined it “Profit, People, Planet”.

Does this mean that with the rise of women in Social Enterprise, men care less – or only get their kicks from seeing profits soaring? I don’t think it’s true – more that for women the ethos of social enterprise is a natural fit, and an area they feel they can and want to excel in.

But it’s also important to remember, as Social Enterprise Consultant Stéphane Eboko said:

“At the end of the day the passion, openness, empathy, skills and experience that those people bring in makes more difference than their gender.

Amen to that.

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