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Social enterprises: an attractive career choice for women?

Social enterprises: an attractive career choice for women?

Women are far more likely to be in positions of leadership in social enterprises than in the traditional small and medium business sector. That was one of the main findings of research by the UK Social Enterprise Coalition based on a survey. Some 26 per cent of social enterprises could be described as 'women-led', almost twice as many as for small businesses for which the figure was 14 per cent.

“Forming their own enterprise puts them in the driver’s seat in terms of managing their time, roles and responsibilities,” Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, told INSEAD Knowledge. “Women juggle multiple roles – certainly more than the vast majority of men. They are the primary caregivers, not only for children but for elderly parents, including those of their ‘significant others’. They also have careers – or at least, pursue job opportunities – and they are frequently involved in community organisation activities – certainly more than men.”

Pamela Hartigan
Many social enterprises are explicitly wedded to diversity, says Annika Tverin (MBA ‘96D) director of Social Finance. This may mean that a social enterprise is open to flexible solutions with respect to working practices and working hours. The profit motive is not the be-all and end-all, nor is it a specific, traditional way of doing business. Such an environment may be more suitable to women who are juggling, for instance, motherhood and career.

The existing higher proportion of women already working for social enterprises encourages more women to enter the space, Tverin adds.

According to Kalpana Sankar, CEO of Hand in Hand, a non-governmental organisation based in Chennai, India, women have proven that they have the strength to cope with tragedies and disasters. In fact, women seem to be able to return to normality much faster than their male counterparts. Apart from their resilience, she says women, with inherent qualities such as empathy and intuition, are able to perform much more efficiently as managers and leaders.

Attracting women into social enterprises

What are some of the barriers preventing women from entering the sector? “The barriers to entry are fewer than the barriers to sustaining the venture – namely, capital, know-how and the confidence to pursue a goal when there are many competing demands pulling women particularly as primary caregivers,” says Hartigan.

In India, the situation is more complex. Various socio-economic indices, such as representation in the workforce, type of work, decision-making roles, income, literacy, health and mortality make it challenging for women to enter leadership roles, argues Sankar. Career women have to play both traditional roles and leadership roles and finding a perfect work-life balance is a major challenge.

To pave the way for women to enter into social enterprises, Sankar says gender equality should be integral to any development programme undertaken, especially in developing countries. She observes that gender concerns find a major place in the lending policies of multilateral funding agencies such as the World Bank or the International Fund for Agricultural Development. This provides more space for women leaders.

Enhancement of knowledge and information can facilitate the process: leadership training programmes for women and creating awareness about the paths traversed by women leaders, their entitlements through experience sharing, and how they ensured protection of their rights guaranteed by the laws governing their respective countries in the areas of health, domestic violence, and the right to choose their vocation and career.

“Women, especially those in the developing countries, are subdued to a large extent because they do not have as much access to information compared to their counterparts. Men have a number of platforms and forums for networking, and hence have greater ability to lobby/exchange information. So women need emotional intelligence to counter male dominance,” she argues. “Universities should focus on this aspect, while preparing the curriculum for undergraduate and Master’s programmes. Further, this sector should also provide such a platform through mentoring by successful women social entrepreneurs.”

The need to scale

Hartigan says that while women are setting up social enterprises, most of them remain locally focused, that is, few achieve the scale that social enterprises created by their male counterparts do.

One reason is that their ‘triple roles’ (professional, domestic and community) constrain their efforts to focus solely on growing their organisations.

So what if they don’t scale and remain local?  Hartigan says she has no response there, “except to say that if we are to address the challenges that loom large before us, then strengthening an enterprise’s ability to have wide impact and form alliances with others is an imperative.”

Sankar concurs with Hartigan and adds that the trend is slowly changing and “we can hope for a sizable representation over the years.”

To enable this to happen, she says lobbies are necessary and forums are required for women to get organised. There is also a need for an organised set-up for women social entrepreneurs to meet, share their experiences and learn from each other. Women also have to be trained to treat success and failure alike.

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