Mourning the Women-Owned Businesses That Never Were

July 21, 2020

It’s no secret that women’s careers, including decades of advancement in the workplace, are being obliterated during this pandemic.

Know what’s going down alongside that? Women-led businesses.

We already have too few powerful women in business. It bugs me on a daily basis how many more business opportunities I get from men, how most of the guests on business-focused podcasts are men, how most of the tools I use were created by men. And that’s while participating in a mastermind for female entrepreneurs and about a million Facebook groups for working women!

The entrepreneurial landscape is already male-dominated, and this pandemic is exacerbating that discrepancy.

I have no data to back this up, only anecdotal evidence everywhere I turn. I thought about doing this as a reported piece, including lots of examples, but like most other working women who have kids, I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like to work right now. So ideas like that get put aside, pushed down deep. They don’t stay there, of course. They nag me all day, every day, wanting attention when I’m sweeping up crumbs or looking on Pinterest for a craft we haven’t done yet. The ideas and companies that never were. 

This is the same reason we’re not reading more from women whose careers and businesses have taken a backseat, why we’re not hearing a “primal scream” about how you can have a kid or a job in this economy, but not both — because the women who are going through this don’t have enough child-free time to figure out a homeschool plan for the coming year, much less advocate for change.


Why women are putting their businesses aside

Women who are drowning in childcare, cooking and cleaning (there is so much more when everyone’s home all the time) don’t have the time or energy to maintain or grow what was a pre-pandemic part-time or full-time business.

How much less work time are we talking about? A New York Times story published in mid-July cited a study that shows “mothers have reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers. This has exacerbated the gender gap in work hours by 20 to 50 percent.”

In most families, women aren’t stepping back from work to take care of the kids because they want to or because they have some gene that makes them better at it than their partner; they’re doing it because someone has to do it. Women end up in that role because their work is more flexible, or because they’re more willing to do the juggle, or let’s be honest, because their time is less valued

In other words, the ingenuity women have displayed in developing part-time careers and flexible businesses that allowed us to spend time with our families has come back to bite us.

It’s also a practical question of who makes more money. (Although we’re seeing stories of breadwinning moms giving up companies, too.) It makes sense that in families where mothers stepped down from demanding corporate roles in favor of flexible or part-time work — never, mind you, expecting to give up work altogether and likely planning to return to full time at some point — the husband earns more. 

But when women further decrease work hours to homeschool the kids, earnings continue to drop, creating a vicious cycle. As women invest more time into work at home that’s not valued, men invest in careers and companies that become more valuable over time.

How this played out at my house

Here’s a confession: I nearly fell into this trap myself. 

When the pandemic hit and our 2- and 4-year-old were suddenly home full time, my husband and I realized there was no way we could both continue to grow our businesses like we did when we had full-time childcare. After trying to juggle the kids and work for a week or two and feeling completely frustrated and drained, I told my husband that because we’d projected him to earn more money than me this year, maybe I should take on more of the childcare so he could at least attempt to hit his revenue targets.

My husband is a smart man. “No way,” he said. “You’ll hate me if we do that.”

A lot of personal factors were at play here: we’re undergoing a costly home renovation, for example, and need the cash to do it. Income as an entrepreneur can be wonky; both my husband and I might earn little for months at a time and then see a big payout. And my husband had only recently become the breadwinner; for the previous few years, he’d built his business while my income primarily supported our family.

In the end, we partnered with another family for childcare a few days a week and split watching the kids the rest of the time, a choice we made as much for our sanity and our marriage as we did for our finances. 

Making decisions based on money is often the only option. But if you’re not truly stuck in this devastating corner, ask yourself: could this decision be short-sighted? For my business, for my family, for me? 

All of these one-off decisions within small family units about who works and who does the harder work of parenting and family management, they all add up. The woman who was growing her Pinterest management business has to drop her clients. The woman who was ready to launch her data analytics firm has to put that dream aside. The woman whose company was on track for huge growth this year has to slow down. And all the one-person small businesses that might have taken off and grown into big, profitable companies (that employ and prop up other workers) never get that opportunity.

Don’t be the martyr

I sometimes ask myself, were finances the only reason I offered to put my business on hold? Why was I, as someone who loves my work and needs intellectual stimulation for self-care, willing to be the martyr? 

It reminds me of watching the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan program play out amongst my founder friends. I’d love to see some data on how many loans went to companies owned by women vs. men. Because anecdotally, I can tell you I saw male company founders go after that money even if they weren’t sure they’d need it, while female founders sometimes held off, thinking another business might need it more.

I don’t think that’s because women believe we don’t deserve it. We’ve simply been cultured to see it as our job to take care of others, instead of putting ourselves first. And sometimes we do it even when it’s not a conscious choice.

I wish I could feel good about saying, put yourself and your business first! Practice self-care! But that kind of advice annoys the hell out of me, because it’s not that easy. Well, maybe it works for the PPP loans, but not when it comes to your family. 

Creating space for female-led innovation

The truth is, women needed more support and space to do deep work even before COVID hit. That’s why I launched Retreat & Create, a workcation for women. The goal was to help women escape daily demands by spending a few days in a quiet, scenic setting, both to relax and to make meaningful progress on our business or work projects. 

Our first event, which was scheduled for May, was full. We cancelled because of COVID.

It’s not safe yet to run these retreats again, but I think they’ll be even more in demand in the coming years. Not only are women desperate for time to themselves, we also have some serious lost ground to make up.

On the days when I feel down about just how much ground is being lost, I think about this re-emergence. The re-emergence of so many brilliant women and the businesses you’re building. I think about the day I’ll get to bring you to this beautiful mountain town. The day I’ll get to take you to dinner, ask you about your projects, and feed off your entrepreneurial energy. 

I think about the day you and I will have as much quiet space as we need.

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    3 Replies to “Mourning the Women-Owned Businesses That Never Were”

    • Hi Alexis,
      Excellent Article! I remember when what you talk about was an issue for me as a working mom. For many years, I have had my own business and no longer have child care issues. But, I still remember that knee jerk reaction to sacrifice my work when a child or family member needed care.
      Thank you for sharing!

    • This is an extremely deep and interesting analysis, Alexis, thanks for sharing it with us. ♥

      • I also noticed something during lockdown: all the webinars I attended were mostly delivered by male experts. At first, I did not pay any attention to that, but gradually, it started to frustrate me.
        And when I asked the organizers why they did not invite any female experts, they would say something like “there aren’t any” or “I don’t know any”, which shocked me.
        So, now, I interview one female speaker each week (once a month an international one, in English), so that organizers cannot use this excuse anymore.
        The program is called “She’s On Stage!” if you’re interested to watch it and it can be found on YouTube. 🙂

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