Business Page February 3rd, 2002


Women In Business

Introduction

Entrepreneurship is always an exciting topic to write about. Women entrepreneurship is even more intriguing given the lack of attention accorded to it in the past. This week's Business Page focuses on the impact on the economy which women can exert and how, with their brainpower, emotional intelligence and natural instincts they can become a stronger force in leadership around the world and in this country. For centuries women have been relegated to play a support role to their macho-counterparts, making the babies, cleaning and keeping the house and being a smiling, good-looking companion. That that stereotype has been changing is a result not of the benevolence or changing views of their male counterparts but rather the results of the efforts of the women themselves and the changing nature of the world in which we live.

That the war on terror in Afghanistan could also liberate the women and girls in that country was the last reason that Bush & Co. would have had for going into that country. The absence of any rights for women in Afghanistan was perhaps one of the worst forms of human rights abuses in the world in 2001. Around the world, groups continue to lobby for some legal recognition of the unwaged housewife. In all the corridors of power, men are still dominant while corporate heads like Lee Iaccoca, Jack Welsh and Michael Eisner are lionized and their billion dollar error regarded merely as the consequence of taking risks.

As management guru Peter Drucker has pointed out however, even if the world is not facing a new economy, the next society has arrived and both in government as well as business, new paradigms are being developed that will fundamentally alter the nature of all organisations. No one now questions the proposition that the 21st Century will be the year of the entrepreneur. It is in the area of entrepreneurial activities that we have witnessed the growing number of new companies, new jobs and new associations. While the corporate giants like "Neutron" Jack Welch shed tens of thousands of jobs, the new entrepreneurs not only take up the slack but created jobs to the point that the developing countries are now importing talent from all over the world. In the process, women have seized the opportunity and are starting companies at far greater rates than men. At the corporate level, the glass ceiling which keeps women in their place is still very prevalent and even at Board level sexist jokes are not unusual and are seen as acceptable even by the women.

None of our major domestic companies has a female CEO and our Boards are still predominantly male. Unfortunately, our women activists have concentrated their efforts not so much on the corporate sector but in the social and political sectors and in small-scale entrepreneurship beginning with the hucksters in the seventies. Yet a closer examination of the more enlightened organisation particularly in the service sector reveals an increasingly common trait - women are key elements of the structure - and are increasingly climbing the hierarchy of success.

Prominent Women

Guyana no doubt has its share of talented, highly motivated and ambitious women. Ms. Sonita Jagan heads one of the largest utility corporations in the country; Ms. Dawn Murray leads the largest operating airline in the country while in Government there are four female ministers. Gem Fletcher has served on the Board of the Guyana Bank of Trade & Industry for years and over at the NBIC, Yolande Foo is one of the longest serving members on its Board. Beverley Harper is now recognised for her role in business and her sister Denise is at the forefront in building Creations as one of this country's truly dynamic companies. Maefield French is a pioneer in private education in nineties in Guyana while Monica LaBennett, who holds both a professional accounting qualification and an MBA was possibly too strong a force in the New Building Society.

These are far too many to be considered aberrations but admittedly they do not fairly reflect the contribution which women can make to the development of the country. And we only have to consider how our female students do at schools and at the University of Guyana. Not only in Guyana but in the Caribbean as well, girls tend to outperform their male counterparts and have won more awards for outstanding performance that the men.

At the entry level, the legal profession is becoming increasingly dominated by women while at the top of course is a female Chancellor. The accounting profession is only marginally different although there are some fields such as engineering where the male is still dominant.

Institutional Barriers

The question is now being debated why women have not translated this superior start into a greater number of higher positions in our country. It is debatable whether women are to be blamed for this or whether there are institutional barriers which militate against their upward mobility. Of course in the natural order of things, it falls to women to make babies while our society expects that they spend some of their most productive years bringing up the kids. Paternity leave even where it is legally available is seen as the basis for an office joke and there are few Union Agreements having such provisions. Although, there is less discrimination in recruiting women on account of this score, professional women who go off to raise their families, are considered as having left the queue and they then have to work their way back on their return.

At the University of Guyana, there is a Women's Affairs (sic) Unit but one leading women's activist tells me that she does not think that there is a course being offered. The leaders of all our twenty-something political parties are men and this imbalance is reflected in the Parliament and worse of all in the Cabinet.

Women & Growth

As we seek to restore our economy to growth mode, we need to recognise that in the United States of America, within the fourteen-year period 1987-2000, the number of women-owned firms more than doubled - from 4.5 million to 10 million. In the six years from 1992 to 1997, revenue from women-led businesses increased by 33%, to US$818.8Bn. From 1996 to1999, employment in women-owned firms trebled, creating more that 27 million jobs, far more than created by the Fortune 500 companies. A study conducted recently in that country found that "economic growth is directly related to the level at which women participate in the economy as entrepreneurs"

It is true that women-owned businesses grow at a slower rate than other firms, though one has to wonder after Enron whether this slower growth has anything to do with creative and aggressive accounting. What is certain is that women have so far failed to attract the level of equity necessary for the creation of fast growth high-potential companies. This is despite the fact that the evidence suggests that women are less likely to default on their debts. This should be seen as an opportunity for the commercial banks which need to show a greater awareness of the role of women in business.

Women also need to establish links with various groups from which they can receive financial and technical assistance in setting up their businesses and positioning them to take full advantage of the various opportunities available. They also need to provide mentoring services where successful women entrepreneurs mentor their junior counterparts.

None of this will be achieved however without specific policies and programmes which recognise the potential contribution of women to economic growth and social development. We need as a matter of urgency to unlock women's potential to create opportunities, jobs, wealth and social stability. The (US) Kauffman Centre Report on Women Entrepreneurs identified six priorities to bring women entrepreneurs into the fold and inject new vibrancy into the US economy. These include replicating model programmes, preparing women venture-capitalists and angels, enhancing women's access to the investor community, educating, preparing and coaching women entrepreneurs, gathering, analyzing and disseminating data on women-owned businesses and increasing the visibility of women role models.

Conclusion

Guyana needs its entrepreneurs now more than ever. It is time that we remove all the barriers which inhibit our women entrepreneurs. The country needs to give them the support, recognition and access which they deserve. They can after all be the sector that will finally help to make Guyana soar.