Excelling as a woman in business

Being a woman in business still brings with it a particular set of challenges, but there are some easily implemented, practical solutions, writes management specialist Karen Gately

Excelling as a woman in business

Business Strategy


For anyone, growing and leading a small business can be tough. Maintaining focus on working in the business as well as on it is a challenge faced by most business leaders. In a services industry, it can be especially difficult to maintain a high standard of service delivery while also investing the time and energy needed to successfully manage financial, operational and people performance.

For many women, the journey of business ownership can be especially difficult to navigate. When working in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the path to success can be even more challenging. Juggling the demands of family and work, overcoming prejudice, and having the self-belief needed to succeed are among the common challenges faced by female leaders in small business.

The challenge: work–life balance
The demands of any small business can be unpredictable and at times intense. Being available to meet these demands can be difficult with children to raise and care for. A growing concern for many women in the later stages of their careers is the need to care for aging parents while at the same time maintaining the focus required to effectively lead their businesses.

Managing time in and out of the business is another common challenge women face. For those who choose to have children, taking maternity leave and then returning to work can create additional complexities. When you consider that for some women this means leaving and re-entering their business on numerous occasions, the potential impacts on their ability to succeed become evident.

  • Empower the people on your team to assume leadership roles irrespective of the positions they hold. Every member of your team needs to feel responsible for the success of not only their job, but also your business. Allow people to play the role they are capable of. Reflect carefully on what you can and should be delegating.
  • Encourage people to use their best judgement and make decisions in your absence. While of course there will always be things that need to be escalated to you, reflect on the decisions you make each day and look for opportunities to empower others to take ownership of them. The more your team is empowered to do while you are in the office, the more they will feel confident doing when you are not.
  • Hire well. Employ people who want to make a positive difference and behave with integrity. Look for those who want to invest their full potential in supporting you to deliver to a high standard, regardless of whether you are at work or not. Finding the right people is key! Reflect on how much time and energy is wasted when we get hiring decisions wrong.
  • Choose to share the load. Carrying a larger burden of family responsibilities will inevitably undermine your ability to succeed in all areas of your life. Changing this reality begins by first understanding the role you are choosing to play and how your own behaviours influence the extent to which you have the support you need.
  • Ask for support. Expect other members of your family or household to step up and do their part. Don’t hesitate to put your hand up when the load of responsibility gets to be too much to carry. While it might take time and persistence to shift the motivation and behaviours of some, setting new expectations and enforcing them is essential.
  • Allow people to help you. It’s common to hear women say they would rather do things themselves because that way they will get them done properly. How often have you heard men complain that they can never seem to meet their partners’ expectations when it comes to loading the dishwasher, organising the kids or doing the laundry? Reflect carefully on the expectations you hold and whether you are allowing people to do more.
The challenge: self-belief and sacrifice
Low self-confidence and a tendency towards self-sacrificing behaviour are common traits that hold many women back from pursuing – let alone achieving – their professional aspirations. All too often, women choose to forgo opportunities because they feel obligated to put the needs of other people ahead of their own. Women are less likely to ask their family to make sacrifices so that they can achieve their career goals.

Women often believe they need to be more qualified or experienced than they in fact do to embark on a business venture. Compared with many of their male counterparts, women are more likely to be hesitant about stepping forward to seize opportunities. Some women even have a fear of being seen as asking for something they haven’t yet earned.

Many women enter the world of business ownership believing they need to act in a certain way to get ahead and survive in a man’s world. Some feel they need to adopt a stereotypical male attitude towards doing business. It’s common to hear people complain about female leaders who are unnecessarily forceful and demanding in their approach to exerting influence.

  • Understand you. We all have the power to choose our thoughts, to choose the emotions we invest in and ultimately to choose the ways in which we behave. With greater awareness, we are able to make more deliberate choices that allow us to achieve the outcomes we want. Reflect for a moment on the thoughts, emotions and behaviours that enable not only your own success, but also that of your team and business. Reflect on those that undermine success. What impact do you have, and what do you need to change?
  • Value you. Understand the qualities and talents you bring. Have self-respect and give yourself fair credit for the things you achieve and the impact you have. Recognise the ways in which you are able to support your clients to achieve their objectives and the value you bring to your team. Appreciate your own strengths and how these can be leveraged to drive the performance of your organisation. Never be afraid to stand in your spotlight and showcase the talents that will build confidence in your brand and team.
  • Prioritise you. There is a reason airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others in case of an emergency. While as a parent, you may want to first ensure your child’s safety, the reality is that if you are unconscious, that’s difficult to achieve. Putting ourselves first is not about being selfish – it’s about ensuring we have the health, vitality and resources needed to succeed. Having strength – whether that be financial security, family support or emotional resilience – positions us to help other people.
  • Be you. Choose to be who you truly are. Strive to be the best possible version of yourself, not an imitation of someone else. While we can always learn from how other leaders approach their roles, have confidence in your own character and capabilities. Understand that it isn’t necessary for women to act like men. What really matters is your ability to be assertive, to act with courage and behave with conviction.
  • Step forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for the opportunities you want. Have confidence in your readiness to take on a challenge, and find the courage to ask for the opportunity. Find strength in your experience; understand all of the qualities that have allowed you to achieve everything you have already. Never allow limiting beliefs to hold you back from choosing to give things a go. As Nelson Mandela famously put it, courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
The challenge: networking
Generating leads and finding new customers are challenges that many women in business find difficult – the reasons for which are reflected in everything we have explored thus far. A lack of time, energy and confidence stand in the way of many women building and leveraging their professional networks to win new business.

It’s not difficult to appreciate how challenging it can be to weave time spent networking into a hectic business and personal schedule. Networking events typically occur outside business hours, so it can at times be impractical to attend. Many women opt out of events they would benefit from participating in because it’s simply too complex and draining to do otherwise.

  • Be targeted. Choose to spend your time at events or in meetings from which you believe you can extract real value. Know who it is you want to meet, what impact you want to have, the messages you want to convey and ultimately the actions you want them to take. While you may not have a certain person or even organisation in mind when attending a function, understand the profile of your ideal client or prospect and how to identify them.
  • Extract value. Follow-up is key to realising the value of your time and energy spent networking. There is little point in having someone’s business card if you don’t reconnect. It’s naive to think people will remember you months or years down the line when they suddenly have a need for what you do. If you believe someone is a good prospect for a particular reason, validate that fact by taking the time to talk to him or her further.
  • Recognise your fears. If meeting new people and engaging in meaningful conversations at networking events seems uncomfortable, understand the fears standing in your way. Do you fear not being good enough or taken seriously, or not being able to respond to questions intelligently? Do you worry that you will struggle to connect with people and inspire them to listen to what you have to say? Understanding what you are fearful of is an essential first step to moving forward with confidence.
  • Recognise what you offer. Overcoming fear requires that you recognise contrary evidence. For example, having a clear view of how and why you have been successful in the past will help you to challenge any thoughts you are entertaining about likely failure. Knowing you are capable and able to find solutions to challenges that arise, and remembering when you have been able to come back from setbacks and hardship, will allow you to step forward with confidence.

Karen Gately is a leadership and peoplemanagement specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. Gately works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best from People and The Corporate Dojo: Driving Extraordinary Results Through Spirited People

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