Women-led social enterprises matter

Women-led social enterprises matter – Author Molly Brown

To us this is obvious. Women-led social enterprises matter. Women-led everything matters. 50% of the human race are female. So the fact that positions of power are still held predominantly by men is depressing and disenfranchising.

The statistics are pretty stark. In Scotland, women make up 52% of the population but only represent 25% of FTSE 100 board members, 42% of public board members, 35% of MSPs and 29% of Councillors. While the numbers have crept up gradually, these figures are indicative of the ongoing structural disenfranchisement and underrepresentation of half the population. Change is coming, slowly – in January 2018, the Scottish Parliament passed a law to ensure women make up at least half the board members for all public authorities by 2022. This is a great start, but there is much more to be done before we reach equality.

As a social enterprise that was founded in Scotland, we are pretty proud of our sector’s record in nurturing female leaders. The 2017 Social Enterprise in Scotland Census revealed that 64% of organisations in the sector are led by women (grown from 60% in 2015). It shows a sector that is more open and more diverse than traditional business.

Hey Girls was founded by Celia Hodson and her two daughters with the aim of eliminating period poverty in the UK. We provide environmentally friendly sanitary products on a Buy One Give One model – for every pack we sell, we give away a pack for free to someone who needs it. Hey Girls started trading in January 2018, and is already working with a range of partners across the UK to distribute free sanitary towels. Alongside this we are developing educational resources and a train the trainer programme, so that all young people have access to high quality education about menstruation. We want to end the stigma, fear and shame around menstruation, and in particular mean that no one misses out on their normal activities because they can’t afford the cost of protection.

People who start social enterprises often do so because they have spotted a problem – something that they want to fix. In the case of Hey Girls, our founder Celia Hodson had experienced first-hand the difficulty of providing sanitary protection for herself and her daughters as a single mother on benefits.

It would be easy to argue that a social enterprise trading sanitary towels was more likely to have been founded by a woman than a man. It would also be possible to conclude that the more women are involved in social enterprise, the more likely we are to find sustainable solutions to “women’s problems”. This would be foolish because:

1)    Every entrepreneur will bring their own experience, passions and priorities to their work. While many people found start-ups bases on personal experiences of gaps and opportunities they have experienced themselves, many others notice problems that others experience and seek to solve those

2)    It forgets empathy. Imagining what life might be like for other people, what they might experience, and how things could be made easier is at the core of social enterprise – from ‘design thinking’ solutions, to recruiting staff and delivering services

3)    It is simply not true that only women can devise women’s services. Think of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the Indian social entrepreneur who invented a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine, and started a grassroots campaign for improved menstrual hygiene in rural India (his story is documented in recently released film Padman)

The nature of social enterprise – finding creative solutions to challenging social problems – requires diverse leadership, and a diverse workforce. As a sector fighting for change, we need as many voices, from as many backgrounds as possible, helping to solve the problem. Clearly, it is important that organisations consult widely with their target group (for example, by involving young people in the decision making of a youth project). But we don’t believe that all women’s groups should be run exclusively by women. We all benefit from including a wide range of perspectives, experiences and opinions.

During the design of Hey Girls, we specifically went out to speak to men and boys, and are working closely with the trans community to make sure that we’re not just speaking to ‘girls’. As we see it, period poverty is a problem for the whole of society – it is not a “women’s problem” or a problem only for deprived areas. We want our social enterprises – all social enterprises – to be led by everyone for everyone.

This starts with wider representation in leadership positions.