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Blog Archive: Olwen Dawe: The Pushy, Bossy Note-Takers’ View on Gender and Entrepreneurship

This post was written for the NWCI Blog in 2013 - as the organisation celebrated 40 years of EU membership, as well as its fortieth birthday... the video "Leading Change: 40 Years of the National Women's Council of Ireland' can be viewed here.

I started my business three years ago. To this day, I remember the first networking event I attended 'flying solo'. In fact, I can recall the sick-to-the-stomach edginess I felt as I stood up and 'pitched' my service - it was dreadful.

Now, I am all-too familiar with this sensation - however it's a fleeting feeling when I take to a podium or chair an event - or do a live radio interview. Nerves are good, they keep you sharp. However in August 2010 it wasn't the reality of being out of the age-old, overused term, my "comfort zone", but in fact, it was the sense that I was atypical in my surroundings. Staking a claim in the sector I work in, as a then twenty-something year-old woman, just wasn't, and to a degree now still isn't, the norm.

Big deal, I hear you say - well, actually - it is. Though times are changing - the change is gradual - and often those with the wish to do something at the top of their capability register simply don't, because it's not the norm. Sadly, this is especially true of women - often more risk-averse than their male counterparts - and in most cases, more highly-qualified. Across Europe, women account for just 30% of all entrepreneurial activity, and in Ireland women are only 15-18% of entrepreneurs. In my case, I knew that I was unusual - most "business development" or "strategy" specialists are twenty years older than me, and male.

However, this didn't stunt my growth - though it did dent my confidence once or twice... Hearing disgruntled competitors using my age, my gender, in a veiled manner, and the experience I had, mainly in "female" areas of business, such as marketing and HR, as a means to question my credentials. Some jibes over my involvement in women's business organisations - "knitting clubs" - and comparisons between financial planning and the household budget, at a business meeting 'so I'd understand'. It might sound like I just wandered into an episode of Father Ted, but in fact, this is absolute reality. I might add that it’s the tip of the iceberg.

So, what's my point? I've written much about the plight of women's economic engagement on this blog, as it's a subject I genuinely care about. I also believe that those of us who have successfully taken the 'leap' should show the way for others. I agree with my colleague, Orlaith Carmody, when she says, in relation to women on boards, that simply because those who've battled hard 'did it', everyone else should have to fight the same fight... in my opinion, it's up to us who have reached our own goals, to help others to follow theirs.

As for the other side of the gender argument, I think I agree most with Moira Forbes and others who say 'we need to change the story' and ignore the old-school paternalistic rhetoric. When the balance sheet versus household budget comment was raised on that fateful day, I realised that the person uttering it simply just didn't understand how ludicrous what he had said, was. This dinosaur may thankfully be part of a dying breed, but our young generation must work hard to ensure his ideologies remain six-feet under.

Sadly, a more insidious form of sexism does exist outside the blunder-bus variety. It's the one which repeatedly attributes values of the past to women's current status, and I have come in contact with this on many occasions. I have been referred to as 'pushy' or 'bossy', as opposed to focused and driven, suggested as the note-taker - women are better at secretarial work, apparently - and condescended to or spoken over at meetings. A common thread exists where projects I have proposed for or have proposed collaborations for, have been unsuccessful - and indeed I have referred work to colleagues, not to receive any referrals in return.

You might say, ah c'mon, that's just bad luck - but believe me, it's not. Having amassed a fairly significant portfolio of projects in my short three years, patterns become painfully clear.

So, what's the answer to this quandary? It's down to all of us, male and female - and particularly our young generation - to change this thematic emblem. No-one with ability to do something, anything, should be intimidated on the grounds of the norm - like the household budget analogy, it's ludicrous. Our youth are key drivers of change and can make the case for new norms, positive ones which will expedite the pace of change on all fronts. Business success is centred on capability, and without diversity, businesses cannot expand, grow and create. Through my work, I'm proud to see more dynamic, more focused leadership in SMEs headed up by Ireland's new swathe of entrepreneurs - they hire capability and diversity - they invest in their staff, and their own development. It's so refreshing to see this change. As highlighted by Dr. Gareth Jones of the London Business School at a recent IMI presentation – authenticity, clarity and focus is key to success.

In sum: Ireland needs to continue to embrace this new, dynamic form of leadership which is inclusive, focused and firmly kick off the shackles of traditional paternalistic values. Dinosaurs may be extinct, but their successors live on.

Olwen Dawe is an enterprise and economic development specialist; in 2010 she founded Irish Business Intelligence and works with enterprise agencies, EU-funded projects and local authorities as a project manager and advisor. Olwen is also engaged by Irish SMEs as a communications and strategy advisor. A committed promoter of female entrepreneurship, Olwen regularly speaks and writes about the topic. She is currently a member of Network Ireland’s National Executive


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