Last week, International Women’s Day marked the progress that has been made in gender equality in the workplace while highlighting the many areas where there is still work to be done.
One of those areas, according to a debate last night organised by The Trampery which runs London’s Traveltech Lab, is the support and funding available for female entrepreneurs.
A startling statistic was quoted during the debate by Merliee Karr, founder and chief executive of London-based home-sharing start-up Merilee Karr.
“Funding for entrepreneurs is still very much male dominated,” she said. “We’re in the process of a funding round and it’s really amazing when you hear stats like only 6% of VC funding goes to women-run companies in the UK. That’s scary when you consider how many women founders there are.”
Karr said there were different reasons for this, including the fact that many women who establish businesses aren’t looking for venture capital funding.
But she said the VC world is still very “male dominated” and encouraged women to give each other support and be role models to instil the courage in others to know they can succeed as entrepreneurs.
“It should not be that only 6% of funding goes to women-run businesses,” she said.
Other members of the female-only panel drawn from the travel sector agreed, saying that while gender issues have come a long way there were still many areas in which there is a lack of equality.
Valerie Lopez, chief executive and co-founder of Shoot My Travel, said: “I see some great initiatives from companies but it can’t just be for one day. Let’s celebrate women every day of the year. Without women, to be honest, it’s really hard to run anything.”
Vareeya Thangnirundr, director of global business development at Hotels.com, said the Expedia-owned brand has policies to ensure women are properly represented throughout the business.
However, she said despite this the male female ratio, while starts out equal at the lower level “declines really quite steeply” at the higher level. Hotels.com has a target of achieving 30% women in senior roles, she added.
“Sometimes women need mentoring or coaching from fellow female professionals,” said Thangnirundr who admitted even though she negotiates huge contracts for Hotels.com she finds it hard to ask for a pay rise.
Inevitably the discussion turned to how firms approach maternity leave and, increasingly, paternity leave as regulation comes into equalise the rights for both mothers and fathers.
Lopez said Shoot My Travel supported its first employee to go on maternity leave and when she returned has been as flexible as possible to enable working from home.
“It’s about how you can make people feel comfortable so they can bring their energy to the company,” she said. “This reflects what we do on a daily basis. If you are miserable at home you are miserable in your business.”
Thangnirundr said although firms in the tech sector are flexible and have return to work programmes, the reality for women who opt to reduce their hours after they have become mothers is that progression in their careers can be stifled compared to full-time employees.
“Reducing hours is hard. It’s something the company is trying to address, but the reality is it’s tough,” she said.
Karr added that often company hiring policies and government regulations do not help firms who want to treat people fairly.
“When you are a manager and making those choices, you always want to do the right thing, even if it’s hiring a women even though you know they are likely to go away on maternity leave.
“If you would be allowed to hire two people, both part time, to cover that job you may be willing to take those people.
“But if you, as a manager, are being asked to choose, it becomes unfair to the other people in the team to choose the person who is less available.
“Often the structures companies have are putting people at a disadvantage and you are forced to make decisions that are not as diverse as they are meant to be.”
Karr said new UK paternity laws are not a straight forward answer because, unlike in countries like Norway, they are not applied as standard across the board.
That means a company that applies the new rights risks being doubly affected because male of female employees may be married to people who work for other firms that do not offer the same terms and so are more likely to be the ones who choose to take advantage of the leave.
“It only works when all companies implement it,” she said. “I was so disappointed when I was devising my policies when I realised that the legislation the government was putting in was worthless unless it applies to all companies. It’s only half done.
“It should not come down to a manager making a decision which negatively effects a team.”
Firms were urged to ensure there is a good balance between men and women in their businesses and to maintain that as they grow although the culture in the business comes down to more factors than simply the gender mix.
Lopez said: “Following your passion is waking up every day and doing it and doing it and doing it over and over again. Dreams do not work unless you work.
“They are not going to happen like miracles in your sleep, they happen because you work for them. Know that procrastination is the graveyard where dreams are buried.”
Karr said every day bring new challenges but that it was important to take time out to appreciate how far you have come. “It’s a journey and you do not know what the next day is going to bring. Every day you are going to have some new challenges.”