How to… support women into self-employment

As the number of women moving into self-employment continues to increase, so too does the need for targeted support, says Julie Kapsalis

I’ve always been passionate about encouraging enterprise, and traditionally some of the most effective support has focused on helping women into self-employment, and particularly women with caring responsibilities.

Ten years ago I worked with the south east branch of Business Link to develop a programme of workshops called ‘What’s Stopping You’. It focused on pre- start-ups and included sessions on confidence building, networking, finance, marketing and business planning. At the same time, I was appointed as an advisor to the UK women’s enterprise task force to drive forward the number of women-owned businesses.

So, what progress has been made? There are some positive signs. Last year Prowess and the women’s budget group published a report entitled ‘Here to stay: women’s self-employment in a (post) austerity era’. This study found that while historically women made up just over a quarter of the self-employed, since the 2008 downturn 58% of the newly self-employed have been female. In 2014, 70% becoming self-employed were women.

However, it also revealed that for a growing proportion of women, self-employment does not appear to be a ‘choice’ but a necessity driven by factors such as public sector job losses, the up-rating of the female retirement age, or a need to accommodate caring responsibilities.

So there is clearly more work to be done to capitalise on this latent market of entrepreneurs, to support them to maximise their income and ensure that self-employment becomes an option of choice and empowerment. It is encouraging to see some local enterprise partnerships (Leps) investing in business support provision and brokerage – including the business navigator growth hub in the Coast to Capital Lep – but more definitely needs to be done.

Business support is, in my experience, most successful when it is targeted and flexible. While there is always a debate over whether ‘women-only’ business support is a good or bad thing, the key issue is about providing choice and options.

For the first ten years of my career, whilst I actively championed and developed support in this area, it had never impacted directly on me. That all changed in 2011 when I found myself made redundant and with a six-month-old baby. I had no idea of what to do next or where to go for support. My confidence had been knocked and the reality of juggling and affording childcare had just kicked in. I felt that people viewed me differently now I had a baby and couldn’t comprehend how I could re-start a career that involved long hours and international travel.

Initially, I moved into a part-time role but I was under-employed. This is common practice in ‘women returners’, who often take jobs that they are over qualified for and who prioritise a job that gives them flexibility above using their skills and knowledge. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows there are over 1.5 million professional women in the UK who want to work more hours but cannot without greater flexibility.

Childcare costs can also make it untenable to return to work – especially if you work in a role involving long or unsociable hours. I always envied colleagues who had family members on hand to help with childcare and provide support in times of crisis. Until recently, I did not have this support and relied on a full-time nanny. While she was (and still is) the most amazing person I trust with my children, it is a hugely expensive option.

Through my first part-time job as a ‘working mum’, I regained some confidence, started to put in place childcare solutions and most importantly began to rebuild my network. By the time I had my second son, self-employment felt like my only option and for a year I did consultancy work and while hugely rewarding and enabling, I also found it lonely and difficult to access support and advice (Business Link was long gone!).

Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t the career path for me and that I wanted to return to a larger employer and to rebuild my career in business and economic development. Six years on and, somehow, I have had two children, a full-time job and career that I love – but it’s never easy.

I therefore try wherever possible to champion and support female colleagues to manage a career and a family. However, we need to make this commonplace, and my call to the ‘new’ government is to encourage more ‘women in business’ support to ensure we are capitalising on every opportunity to grow our economy.


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