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Women entrepreneurs seek way through glass ceiling

Monday, November 03, 2008 > 10:57:00
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(Source: cbc.ca)

 

Connie Clerici didn't think of its as a glass ceiling. Perhaps it was more like an 'oh come on' epiphany.

She had spent years as a nurse in a hospital emergency ward and community care centre, watching decent care many times turn into a sour experience.

Too often in her view what was already a difficult time for patients worsened as services that would make the person's stay more comfortable and shorter were unavailable or in limited supply.

"I went home to my husband and said 'I know I can do better,'" she said.

That was before she started up Closing the Gap Health Care in 1992. The slightly oddly named company was one of the first to get into providing add-on services to people with illnesses. Rather than stick them in hospitals, Clerici's company lets patients stay at home longer.

"We strive to add life to the years, and years to the lives, of our clients and patients," said the company's mission statement.

Now, Closing the Gap has garnered a fistful of health-care awards and $22 million in revenue in 2007 and Clerici has a number of honours as one of Canada's top female entrepreneurs.

Growing female club

When she first started out, the club of prominent women with start-up companies — while maybe more than would fit in a phone booth — certainly would not populate a decent minor league hockey arena.

That is not the case anymore.

Whether as a reaction to the so-called glass ceiling, a supposed barrier for women advancing within large corporations, or just a sign of the times, more and more women are starting up their own companies.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimated that almost 684,000 women were self-employed in 2006. That figure represented a jump of 234 per cent compared with the 205,665 25 years earlier.

By comparison, the number of men entrepreneurs rose by 47.2 per cent in the same period, or 1.31 million versus 890,000 in 1981.

Measured in a different way, in 1981, the number of self-employed women was 23 per cent of the number of men working for themselves; by 2006, that percentage had jumped to 52 per cent in the ratio of females-to-males.

The end to a never-ending argument

In years past, the rising number of women entrepreneurs also unearthed that zombie of all public policy debates — do women actually face insurmountable problems ever getting ahead in corporate North America?

This time around, no one seems really that interested in a semantic debate about barriers as much as they are in finding ways to make women better entrepreneurs.

'The reality is, the more successful you are in corporate life, the more travel that is required, the more time away from the family, which drives people out of corporate life more so than glass ceilings.'— David MacEachern, search firm Spencer Stuart

In effect, women are not becoming self-employed because they are running away from something, but more because they see the benefits of working for themselves.

"There's a control factor," said Beth Wilson, national enterprise leader at KPMG in Canada.

Women juggling children, a family and a career have a better shot at succeeding on their own, she said.

"Of course, it depends upon how you define success," she said.

Besides, corporate life is tough on men and women, experts said.

"The reality is, the more successful you are in corporate life, the more travel that is required, the more time away from the family, which drives people out of corporate life more so than glass ceilings," said David MacEachern, a Canadian who is a partner in the Miami office of executive search giant Spencer Stuart.

Bootstrap business school

Still, as the number of women who show up in the self-employed workforce increases, so do the resources that are devoted to make sure they are able to swim in this fast business current.

Clerici, for one, realized that good intentions were not enough to keep her fledgling business afloat.

"I quickly learned I had to go back to school to learn business," she said.

So, in 1992, Clerici headed back to Sheridan College to learn the nuts-and-bolts of running her own company.

Eric Morse said women come to his class with the same basic question as the men.

"How do you take your business to the next level," he said.

Morse is academic director at the Quantum Shift Executive Program for High Potential Entrepreneurs at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

He said women still face problems in the workplace, but more related to family situations rather than the fact that one person is more likely to be wearing a skirt.

Search firm Spencer Stuart estimated that, in 2007, women held only 13 per cent of available seats on company boards in Canada compared to 15 per cent in the United States.

"I'm not one that believes the barriers are all that big," he said.

Evidence remains, however, that societal attitudes can — if not halt — at least slow, female advancement in the corporate world.

For example, a 2006 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that only 16 per cent of women in Germany with children under the age of six worked outside the home.

At the corporate higher levels, women still have not broken though to participation levels approaching their percentage of the general population.

Spencer Stuart estimated that, in 2007, women held only 13 per cent of available seats on company boards in Canada compared to 15 per cent in the United States.

In 2006, only five Canadian chief executive officers were female compared with three a decade earlier.

Clerici said that when she first started her business, she faced getting taken seriously by bankers and potential customers.

"Establishing credibility was a huge issue. I still feel you have to keep pushing," she said.

But perhaps the effort needed to push those barriers out of the way of women entrepreneurs is a little less.

 
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