Self-employed people: they’re everywhere. Opening up boutiques, or industriously working on laptops in coffee shops, or beavering away in their home offices. Of course, they had always been there, but I’d been safely tucked away in my office, busily not noticing them.
Each new chapter in our lives opens our eyes to behaviours that were always there, but went unnoticed.
Little did I realise how many 40-something women are self-employed until I left corporate life myself. I estimate that nearly half of the working mums in my sons’ classes at school are either self-employed, or have their own businesses and employ staff.
At the beginning of 2016, the self-employed accounted for 15% of the UK population, that’s 4.6million people. There are many successful, happy, fulfilled women among them who aren’t interested in climbing the greasy corporate pole anymore. I am singling out women here, because the majority of the self-employed people I happen to know are women. And it is a growing phenomenon.
Why is that? What is it that happens to women in their 30s and 40s that makes them leave the fertile land of employment and plough their own furrow?
It is true that the change often comes after women have children, but anecdotal evidence would suggest childcare isn’t the main motivation for women leaving their jobs. I didn’t leave my last company until my eldest son was eight. Many of my friends returned to work straight after their maternity leave, like me, determined to slot right back into corporate life, just as ambitious to succeed as before.
After a couple of years, that desire to reach the boardroom dwindled – it just didn’t seem like such an attractive option anymore. It wasn’t just about work/life balance, it was also a case of wanting to be more authentic, make my own decisions and be in control of my own destiny. I began to resent the control someone else had over my diary.
When it comes to the reasons women leave employment at a certain age, there are wider, societal issues at work:
The pay and opportunity gap
Two executives – one male, one female – started their jobs with the same company at around the same time. They were given the same opportunities and responsibilities for several years and both thrived. Until the woman announced she was pregnant. At that point the woman was taken off the leadership development programme because, she was told, she was ‘going on sabbatical and effectively leaving the business for a while’.
That happened. The CEO who made that decision was a woman.
Some bosses beat the ambition out of us.
Family commitments change our priorities
After a long day at the office, sometimes followed by an evening of networking, I’d come home to make dinner, put on the washing, spend some time with the kids. The hubster does his fair share too, don’t get me wrong, but I can guarantee he has never woken up in the middle of the night in a panic to put the drying machine on. Or is that just me?
I know several women who work for international companies who are expected to dial into conference calls with their counterparts in Melbourne and New York at 11pm, and turn up to work bright and breezy at 8am the next day. That timetable isn’t sustainable when one child is teething and the other is waking with night terrors.
Never did my family commitments interfere with my corporate job. I worked four days a week and was the top biller in the company. But there was this constant nagging feeling that I wasn’t giving 100% to either work or family. The move towards equality (because we’re not there yet) means that we have a lot on our plates and not enough time.
Now I’m very disciplined with my time – there is clear separation. I don’t do household chores during working hours, but because I don’t commute anymore, I can do those things while the kids are eating their breakfast or dinner. I have several hours available to me that weren’t before.
Corporate culture vs authenticity
Studies show that women have a higher EQ – emotional intelligence, take fewer risks and place higher emphasis on communication skills than men. These characteristics are under-valued in large organisations, even by those run by women. Michael Brown talks about this in his guest blog here.
Appraisals and personal development plans are ultimately about achieving the next level in the hierarchy. And in order to reach that goal, one has to demonstrate, among other things, better ‘leadership’ skills.
That just doesn’t feel authentic to many women. I once won an award for being ‘most inspiring mentor’ – that’s where I felt I had strength, in encouraging people – not in managing large teams or dictating strategy. But that wasn’t really part of the company’s grand plan.
I began to find the structure within which I worked stifling. Rather than beating a path to the boardroom door, I started to retreat from it, asking for less responsibility and fewer people to manage.
The internet entrepreneur
The internet has brought so many new opportunities for all sorts of one-woman businesses. A whole category of enterprises only exist because of the internet – such as web designers, bloggers, virtual assistants; while others are able to expand their businesses or shops through web-based marketing and sales. Start-ups don’t need a huge investment to get going. In the case of our recruitment business, we already owned laptops, had a well-established network to tap into and just needed to buy a software package and mobile phones.
Women do have a choice – they can either learn more ‘masculine’ skills to compete for the top jobs; be content where they are, using the skills they have; or they can make a leap of faith into a new way of working, that allows them to be authentic and make their own choices.
There are so many reasons, and opportunities, for leaving corporate life, it’s no surprise there are so many self-employed women in the UK.
My fifth decade(eek!) has brought with it a confidence to make scary decisions. I wish I had made the move away from employment in my 30s but I wasn’t mentally ready for it then. The self-employed women I know are confident. They are leaders. They just don’t want to lead in the confines of a corporate hierarchy.
Self-employment allows women to take back some time and freedom and create a life that includes work, rather than trying to fit a life around work.
[This post was originally written as a guest blog for Michael Brown’s website, which is a great resource for those interested in continuous professional development.]