This is the first in a series of blogs through which we want to explore ways in which social enterprises empower women, and collectively, advance gender equality. We want to hear your success stories, in particular, how you navigate the barriers and challenges in advancing gender equality and empowering women. Hopefully, we will inspire as many social enterprises as possible, to strive toward a more equal society. 

Gender equality requires that access to rights or opportunities is not determined by gender. People of all genders enjoy equal rights and opportunities, in all aspects of life, whether to education, healthcare, work, and political representation.

Gender empowerment is a key part in correcting gender inequality. When we talk about gender empowerment, we mean women are able to address and reverse those structures which discriminate against them. We refer to women’s exercise of choice and agency and ability to take action to change their lives.

Despite pledges from successive governments to address gender inequality, the UK fell six places in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, from being the 15th most equal, to the 21th most equal country in the world. Gender inequality affects us all; not only women themselves, but also society and economy. Women’s contributions are undervalued in the workplace, and they are under-represented in business and politics. Unequal societies are less cohesive, and the underutilization of women’s talents affects economic growth.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are pertinent issues for the social enterprise sector. Indeed, a recent British Council Report (Activist to Entrepreneur: the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment) 2017 commended the potential of social enterprises in supporting women’s empowerment. It showed that social enterprises supported women by developing skills, providing education, creating jobs, giving women a voice and campaigning for gender equality. In employment, for example, proportionally more jobs were created for women through social enterprise than through for-profit enterprise. Many employed women from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds, and for these women, the impact of social enterprises on empowerment was very strong.

However, the Report also emphasized that the social enterprise sector still has a long way to go before it can claim gender equality. Although social enterprises challenge gender inequality by doing all the good things above, they also reflect this inequality and reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, jobs created by social enterprises often reflect the gender segregation seen in the wider society.

We want to, through these series of blogs, stimulate dialogue among social enterprises as to what it means to (i) advance gender equality and (ii) support the empowerment of women. These are big, overarching topics so lots of issues will surface.

For this first blog, I spoke to Michelle York, from Nuneaton Signs (http://www.nuneatonsigns.co.uk/), a social enterprise based in Warwickshire. Nuneaton Signs is one of the foremost signs making organisations in the UK and actively employs disabled people, with women making up a quarter of its workforce. Michelle is passionate about social enterprises creating a culture which supports gender equality, both in the workplace and in general. So I asked her to unpack her thinking on this.

One key message from our conversation was that whilst social enterprises would agree that ‘equality’ should underpin their strategies, they are perhaps not focusing as much as they can on gender equality. This is despite gender issues dominating the spotlight for a long time- issues such as gender pay gap, women’s safety and sexual harassment. Perhaps it is because gender is a topic which is considered ‘old hat’ or ‘yesterday’s news’? Or because there are other more ‘pressing’ social issues to address? Michelle said “my gut feel is that… It’s not the hot topic. It’s not a fashionable thing for social enterprise to set up because there are so many issues to address…the same with any small business.”

Women of Nuneaton Signs Social Enterprise UK

So, what should social enterprises do? She says that promoting gender equality is not about setting up social enterprises to specifically address gender issues. She is adamant that all social enterprises, whatever their objective and raison d’être, have a role to play in championing gender equality.

Michelle called, firstly, for self-analysis “look at your numbers. Look at where you are, and where you’ve ended up, and actually, how you can improve?” Reflect on your own priorities and attitudes. On her own organizational approach to gender equality, Michelle stressed the importance of creating an open and inclusive working environment. She pondered “…Having always been in a male dominated industry across the whole of my working career, I had spent my working life trying to blend in with the men having the sharp suit on, actually even wearing a tie at one point for a few years and not embracing femininity in the younger version of me…but now, I am quite happy to walk onto a construction site in a dress with my hair down with my safety boots on”.

Michelle also challenged social enterprises to always be ready to talk about concerns related to women’s lives, whether with employees, clients or customers. She relayed an instance where she discussed period poverty with her male clients. Not only did they learn about period poverty, they relayed it to girlfriends, wives, sisters, daughters, saying “I didn’t know it was a thing… that it was an issue, I learnt something new”. A light bulb moment which can inspire wider change! So, talk to your team (your workforce, your networks) about gender equality, oppose gender inequality, do not keep gender inequality hidden. Make it part of our everyday conversation and activities.

Finally, spread a culture within your organization which embraces gender empowerment. Create a supportive culture for women employees, one that says that you have got their back, and you are there to support them, whatever the issue is, whether disability, mental health or flexible working or concerns about children. And do what you need to, to meet that specific need. Check in on them to see how they are getting on. Create a safe space. Build confidence. Be someone they can relate to. Michelle explained “I’m never too busy, no matter what’s happening…I’ve always had a chair, or an area, making sure my office is accessible to everybody. That somebody can come in, sit on the chair that the door can be shut. At any time of the day, and the phone is always on in the evening.”