The overwhelmingly majority of my clients are women and nearly all of them come with concerns (voiced or not) about whether their business is going to make it; if they're _something_ enough to make their business and lifestyle dreams happen. While every entrepreneur has their hesitation I see this taking on a unique flavor among women. There's a strong feminist critique of the working world when it comes to employed work, and I don't think enough is said about how entrepreneurship is so often by men and for men. (Not to mention the advice surrounding entrepreneurship and self-employment!) I want to take a moment and lend a feminist perspective to entrepreneurship in general, but also how feminism can help individual entrepreneurs.
Case in Point
I recently read an article on "youpreneurs", and was taken aback by a comment by the man who coined that term. He was proposing an exercise where you make two lists: one of all the things you do well, and the second of all the things you struggle to do. He followed this up with a comment that most entrepreneurs struggle with the second list more than the first. Reading this I scoffed aloud. This is the polar opposite of my experience of my clients. I see people struggle to articulate what they do well and what makes them unique, while they very easily rattle off all their short comings.
The first lesson here is that generalizations about “all entrepreneurs” are often times inaccurate. So anytime you read something that says “all entrepreneurs” that isn’t like you, don’t give it too much credence. But more importantly, I want to dig into why my clients struggle with this and offer some support in how to understand what you do well.
Why Is This a Thing?
A lot has been written in recent years in response to the persistent wage gap between men and women in the workplace. Some, such as Sheryl Sandberg author of Lean In, assert that women underestimate their skills and fail to advocate for themselves to the extent that men often do. Others point to subconscious discrimination in the way employers perceive traits in men and women. And I'm sure there are many other veins of research and critique that I'm not yet aware of.
I'm here to say that for every challenge women face in the world of employed work, there's a corresponding challenge in the world of self-employed work. If you're not advocating for yourself in the workplace, then you'll struggle to price your services appropriately as a business owner. If employers have subconscious discrimination about their staff, then consumers will have subconscious discrimination in relation to their service providers. And so on for any piece of workplace feminism that you can find.
Unfortunately, the solutions in the employed world don't tend to carry over as easily as the critique. Plus, the steaks are higher for entrepreneurs compared to employed work. Not acknowledging your value might cost you a promotion when employed, and being unaware of subconscious discrimination might make a job hunt frustrating, but these things are going to cost you business when self-employed.
To me it makes sense that we struggle with this as women. We’ve been conditioned our whole lives to seek ways to support others. Taking a leadership role gets us labeled bossy. Acknowledging our strengths is prideful and unattractive. All the while we’re critiqued in a never ending parade of no-win situations, so our faults are at the forefront of our mind.
So it’s no wonder that female entrepreneurs would easily list the things they struggle to do, and would draw a blank when trying to list all that they do well. It’s important to counter this programming, but also to work with the strengths it gave us.
Leverage That Female Conditioning
This conditioning can be leveraged for our benefit. As an example, women tend to do a lot of emotional care taking that enhances group cohesion. Entrepreneurs are often talked about as singular, strong individuals. And maybe that’s true for some, but that’s not the only way to be an entrepreneur. One strength of the human species is our social nature; that we band together and support each other. In biology, survival of the fittest applies to species and traits, not individuals. And for this reason, I argue that banding together is a very real advantage in business as well. As women we can leverage our conditioning to support group cohesion in self-employment as well. Let’s shed the “catty” attitudes and strive to lift other women (and businesses in general) as we lift ourselves. In this way we can use the skills that were cultivated in us from our youth to our advantage.
Leveraging the traits trained into us is only half the equation. We also need to seek balance between what we were taught as girls and the way the boys were taught to do things. We loose a part of ourselves if we stay in our gender lanes, and, for me at least, I want all the options available to me. I see the starting point of this as having two parts: cultivating your awareness of these differences, and doing your personal work to build up new skills.
Build Awareness of the Difference
The first part of this is an awareness of the problem. How is this early gender enculturation playing out as adults? Things such as, strong female leaders are often criticized for being “to harsh”. If you’re aware of this trend, then when you receive negative feedback that you’re pushing too hard, you can more accurately weight that. It might not be that you’re doing anything “too much” and merely that you’re a woman doing something that critiquer only expects men to do. Awareness gives you that grain of salt you need to better understand the world around you. (It doesn’t solve the problems, by any means. But that’s a larger and more complicated topic.)
As another example, if you're aware that women tend to undersell themselves to the extent that a man who knows 80% of a topic might call themselves an expert, while a woman would not, then you can shift how you see yourself in relation to others. Think of all the things you know to an 80% proficiency level. You can call yourself an expert at all of those things!! Now, you don't have to call yourself an expert at all of those things, but isn't it a helpful re-frame to think that the rules of the game are 80%=expert rather than 100%=expert?
Do Your Work
We as women each need to personally embark on reclaiming the things we weren’t allowed or weren’t supposed to do as girls. This could be any of a myriad of things, but understanding our personal strengths is one key aspect of this for entrepreneurs. Circling back to that “things I do well” list that I mentioned earlier, you need to get better at coming up with that list! But how?
First off, I don’t think the exercise is to sit down and make a list. I think it takes a form similar to a vision board. Let's call it a strengths board. It's a place where you document your strengths, and that you come back to regularly to remind yourself of your truth. Identifying these strengths is a process. You can start by listing all the compliments you’ve ever received (that you can remember.) What are the common ones? But also note which ones don’t seem to have any value to you.
Continue the practice by making a habit of cherishing compliments when you receive them. Write it down and add it to your strengths board. This might also necessitate that you seek out compliments. Ask for them; try close friends first if that’s more comfortable. But also seek out groups and individuals that freely compliment and join in that practice. (Because it's also a great way to lift other women, other business owners, and other people in general!)
Really sit with those compliments that don’t seem to have any value to you. When you get the compliment that makes you roll your eyes or seems dull, hang on to that and sit with it for a while. Usually the compliments we don’t value are the things we do effortlessly. That doesn't make it not special or not a worthwhile trait, quite the contrary. It was so worthwhile and noteworthy someone complimented you about it. It by definition has value in that person's eyes. So why are you downplaying it?
It can be easy to ignore the things we do effortlessly, but that is a mistake. Imagine if you had a job comprised of only the things you do effortlessly. You got paid for breathing and slapping your alarm off in the morning, and getting distracted on social media and everything else you do without really thinking about it. Wouldn't that be an easy way to make money?! Yeah, so those things you do effortlessly that other people value about you could be BIG BENEFITS to your business. You're probably going to do them anyway, so you might as well advertise them!
Celebrate Your Strengths
All business owners need to know and celebrate their strengths, and this article is only a starting point. For me, a feminist critique is a source of comfort and strength. I leverage the information gained to shape the form my business takes as well as the placement and positioning of my business in the world. I work with so many powerful and singularly unique women and I want us all to have the confidence and strength to rewrite the world of entrepreneurship in our own image.