Why more female founders isn't the cause for celebration you might think

Female entrepreneurship is a wonderful thing. Gender diversity at the top trickles down, increasing the representation of women in senior roles more widely. Diversity in general aids business performance, boosting the economy in the process. Plus, we need women at the helm of businesses to create products and services that answer to the needs of the female half of our population. So why, given all these benefits of female entrepreneurship, did I feel a little uneasy when I heard that there’s been a significant rise in the number of female founders?

There was something troubling about the reasons given by female founders for starting their businesses. 39% wanted to improve their work/life balance – sounds sensible, I thought. 30% said they wanted more flexibility around where they can work. Again, nothing remarkable. But 25% said they had made the decision after having children. As a new mother, that stopped me in my tracks. Put all of those motivations together and they paint a rather dim picture of the life of working women and mothers in particular.

Having a child changes your personal life in so many incredible ways. But we know it has an impact on your professional life, too. Data tells us that over half of mothers have faced some kind of discrimination in the workplace. That’s a staggering statistic. So, when I heard that a quarter of new female founders chose their path after having children, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of concern. Are workplaces such inhospitable environments for mothers that they feel they have no choice but to go it alone?

The motherhood penalty is real - and it’s baked in early on. Our own research tells us that 1 in 5 women have been asked in a job interview if they plan to have children. It’s an intrusive question that a candidate might not even know the answer to, and yet employers seem to think that it determines their professional fate.

If they do choose to have children, it’s widely acknowledged that sky[1]high childcare costs are driving mothers out of the workforce. Again, our own data tells us that childcare is the most common reason for women to take a career gap. Unsurprisingly, those who take time out of work due to childcare also say that they would feel more confident applying for jobs if they did not have to share the gap with potential employers. As a society, we don’t look favourably at those with non-linear employment histories – and mothers know this all too well.

There can be real anxiety around returning to work after having a child. There’s a misconception that your skills and ambition fade. There’s also the challenge of fitting an inflexible professional life around a less predictable family life without letting one spill into the other, meaning that a healthy work/life balance can feel far beyond reach. This isn’t helped by our widespread obsession with ‘culture fit’ which so often penalises parents who can’t embrace pub-trip socials, or who are simply unable to abandon home life in aid of a deadline that demands overtime.

Workplace culture must evolve

Of course, there are some societal changes that will take longer to achieve, but there are many simple adjustments that workplaces could make overnight. Parent-friendly socials, flexible hours, enhanced maternity leave, childcare support, anonymous CVs and structured interviews could all help – and the list goes on.

The statistics speak for themselves. Women are happier after starting their own businesses.

I’ve no doubt these women are making their businesses parent-friendly. It’s just a shame they’ve had to take it into their own hands.

It’s also important to remember that running a business is not an easy way out. I might not be asked whether I plan to have children in interviews anymore, but the stigma still shows up in other ways. When I was pregnant with my son, for example, a very well-meaning investor advised me to conceal my pregnancy with strategic camera angles on Zoom.

Discrimination doesn’t fall away because you’re steering the ship. The reality is I’ve had to contend with ageism, racism and – you guessed it – sexism throughout my career. I know that it can be a constant battle for women to get the opportunities, recognition and support that they deserve.

And while I’m not in danger of being passed over for promotion because I’m a parent or made to feel workshy because I’m not in the office every day, running a business comes with its own unique set of challenges for mothers. There are always competing responsibilities. It’s perhaps an extreme example, but I remember my ‘new baby bubble’ being burst abruptly by the Silicon Valley Bank collapse. My son was just two months old, but the board meetings couldn’t wait. It was unavoidable but distressing all the same. And that’s just reality when the buck stops with you.

Starting your own business is not a panacea for the stresses of working motherhood. I want to see more female founders. I want us to reach the kind of representation that men enjoy. But the reality is that not every woman in the UK can run their own business, and nor will it be the right choice for all of them.

Instead, we need to find ways as employers, colleagues, and policymakers – all of society – to create equal opportunities for mothers and ensure that workplaces are supportive environments for them to be in. I want women to thrive, whether that’s by striking out alone or within inclusive working cultures.

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe.