“I don’t remember being particularly outnumbered on my MBA programme, so I wonder what happened to all those other female executives,” says Sharon Lane, pictured above.
Sharon has been voted Teesside’s most inspiring female business leader in Tees Business polls for the last two years, but she admits to being puzzled why only two of her female peers joined her in this year’s top 30.
A former apprentice, Sharon is now general manager of Skelton-based precision engineering specialists, Tees Components.
Reflecting on statistics that indicate that one in five UK business owners are women, while around one in four are board members, Sharon furrows her brow as she ponders the results of the 2017 Tees Business poll, conducted among her fellow local business leaders.
Why were there just three women in the top 30? And is there reason for concern?
“I’m surprised the figure’s so low,” admits the qualified mechanical engineer. “Given the national figures for female business owners and directors, it sounds like there are perhaps some shy successful businesswomen on Teesside that we don’t know about.”
A tendency for female business leaders to hide their light under a bushel is an issue Allison Routledge, an investment executive at FW Capital, takes seriously.
“Perhaps we’re not good enough at promoting ourselves,” she told Tees Business. “We just get on with the job in hand.”
Ann Stonehouse, an accountant who two years ago helped set up North East Foundation for Women in Enterprise, agrees. “I do think we are low key – even our networking is low key. I know many businesswomen but we are just juggling too many things I can only assume PR and marketing is something that is often put on the shelf.”
Ann’s point of ‘juggling’ the work-life balance may be key, with many women, no matter how successful or able, unwilling to let their business ambitions supersede their roles as mothers, especially while their children are young.
Middlesbrough College principal and chief executive Zoe Lewis was the only other woman to join Sharon Lane in the top 10 of the 2017 poll.
A mother of two children, aged nine and ten, Zoe says: “I honestly don’t know why more women don’t become leading entrepreneurs or reach a high level in the boardroom, as we see the same level of ability and ambition in all of our students. I often wonder if it’s associated with childcare and flexibility, which often coincide with a time of life when careers are really developing.
“Many women who have children struggle to find the right work-life balance and want a more flexible type of working, which employers often don’t consider as much for senior roles.
“Generally, I think women consider the impact of work on their families, more than men do. It certainly was something I considered long and hard before applying to be principal.
“I wanted to be sure I could be a good mum and be there for my family without compromising my work. I’m lucky to have a large support network around me that makes both possible but not everyone is lucky enough to have that. I’m not sure men are confronted by this dilemma to the same extent.”
Although only 20% of businesses are female-owned/managed, a much higher proportion of self-employed individuals – around one in three – are women.
“Perhaps more support is needed to encourage these women to grow from being self-employed to employing others,” Sharon wonders.
“Some people find events and awards programmes specifically for women a little tiring. Unfortunately, the reality is that if a young woman has a great business idea, considers founding a company, looks around her and sees that nearly every person running a business is male, so has no visible female role models, she is likely to be more than a little discouraged.
“So it’s important that we continue to highlight women leaders in all sectors, if only to ensure that those budding female entrepreneurs can see that they won’t be alone.”
Ann picks up the point that too many women don’t shout about their successes. “I recently asked women to use our networking platform to self-promote themselves but the successful and well-known in the North East region were shy in doing so,” she reveals.
“This then began a debate about this and I asked how this could be changed to allow women to become more recognised for their success.”
What Zoe is sure of is that there are no easy answers to changing the current status – and that simply encouraging more women to be entrepreneurial isn’t the sole answer.
“It’s absolutely right that we raise aspirations in young women to consider the sort of management roles that could lead them to becoming directors and business leaders. But I don’t believe it’s as easy as inspiring women and more will naturally come through. I firmly believe the talent is already there, and has been for a long time, but I think it’s that question of the work-life balance that means that many women don’t fulfil their potential in the workplace.”