…And why women are becoming more and more successful

by Mark Richards

Yesterday was International Women’s Day: Sunday is Mother’s Day. So it seems entirely appropriate that today’s article should focus on women and the strides they are making in the business world. Or should that be some of them? For all the efforts that are being made to highlight and close the gender pay gap, many women are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts.

Let us begin with a little history. It is fairly well documented that it is 100 years since women first got the vote in the UK, following a long campaign by the suffragettes. Historians today are divided on whether the campaign by the suffragettes helped or hindered their cause. What is undeniable is that it was spectacular, with the leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, having been inspired by Russian methods of protest such as hunger strikes, and Emily Davison dying after walking onto the course during the 1913 Derby and being hit by King George V’s horse, Anmer.

In fact, women in the UK only gained a very limited right to vote in 1918: it was limited to women over 30 who met certain property qualifications. It was not until 1928 that the suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21.

The UK lagged well behind other countries in this respect, with New Zealand being the first country to grant all women the right to vote in 1893, whilst some Western states in the US had allowed universal suffrage from as early as 1869.

The Glass Ceiling

Fast forward fifty years and by the end of the seventies people were talking about the ‘glass ceiling.’ The term was first used in 1979 (ironically the year in which Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister). Originally it meant that level in an organisation or hierarchy that women could not rise above: now it tends to be applied to any minority demographic that is discriminated against.

Hopefully, the glass ceiling for women in business has now been well and truly broken, with women now making up 25% of the boards of UK’s leading 350 companies, as companies increasingly recognise that including women in teams and management structures does not just tick the right boxes, it makes sound commercial sense.

Why? Because it is a scientifically proven fact that groups including women make better decisions.

Why women make better decisions

The Fairer, More Intelligent, Better-Decision-Making Sex

Good decisions do not come from a brainstorming session carried out by a roomful of geeks – who may say, be super-intelligent but lack social awareness. All the evidence suggests that the best decisions come from groups where people take turns in making their point and have a high level of social sensitivity, which means they tend to include women.

In 2010 a series of experiments was carried out at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Nearly 700 people were divided into groups of 2 to 5 and given a series of tests, including cognitive puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgements and negotiating over scarce resources. Earlier tests had shown how people scored for individual ‘traditional’ measures of intelligence and – more importantly – how they scored for social and emotional intelligence.

The test results showed that while having more intelligent individuals in a group helped in making good decisions to a limited degree, a far better indication of good decisions was the social factors – and those good decisions overwhelmingly came from groups containing a higher number of women.

The real success stories are abroad

The Fairer, More Intelligent, Better-Decision-Making Sex

Here is an interesting statistic. Around 30% of the world’s most successful self-made male entrepreneurs are Chinese. Around 60% of the world’s most successful self-made women entrepreneurs are Chinese. At first glance that is hard to believe: China has always been a male-dominated society, but what is undeniable is that the economy has expanded at a rapid pace over the last 25 years – and created some hugely successful women entrepreneurs as a result.

Publisher Hurun has just published its annual list of global self-made women billionaires, with five of the top ten coming from China. Leading the way is Zhou Qunfei, a woman from a poor, rural background, whose company, Lens Technology makes glass to cover laptops and smartphones with Apple and Samsung among its customers. She is the world’s richest self-made woman, worth an estimated $9.8bn (£7.1bn). Forbes ranked her as the 16th richest woman in the world, but with all those above her appearing to have inherited or married into their wealth.

Ms Zhou grabbed the top spot on the list from Beijing-based real estate developer Chen Lihua, who slipped to third after also being leapfrogged by another property developer, Wu Yajun from the city of Chongqing.

Outside China the richest self-made woman is the American Diane Hendricks, the co-founder of the Wisconsin based ABC Supply, one of the largest distributors of roofing and windows in the US.

Zhou Qunfei (who lists her hobbies as mountain climbing and ping-pong and says the secret of her success is the desire to learn) is hailed as an inspiration to both women and poorer, migrant workers in China. In her first job, she earned 180 Yuan (around £20) a month.

Could the UK learn from the success of Chinese women?

In the UK, all the recent debate surrounding women in the workplace has centred on the subject of equal pay and the gender pay gap. Should we instead be focusing on encouraging more women to start their own business? On Tuesday of next week, Chancellor Philip Hammond will deliver his first Spring Statement. He will rattle off a barrage of statistics, make a few limp jokes and undoubtedly aim a veiled barb or two at those favouring a hard Brexit.

Sadly, he will say nothing at all about entrepreneurship. And yet if the research-based evidence of science and the reality-based evidence of China is anything to go by, encouraging more women to start their own business could provide a huge boost to the UK economy. The Chancellor will undoubtedly bemoan the UK’s poor productivity as we sit 13th in the world productivity league table: and yet the answer to the problem – a legion of British female entrepreneurs to follow in Zhou Qunfei’s footsteps – could be just waiting for the right encouragement.