3rd July 2018

In the mid-1990s, when I was a PhD student researching career transition, policymakers touted entrepreneurship as a source of hope. Fast-forward to the present day and we find precisely the same thing: the notion that individual wealth creation is crucial to coping with a challenging economic climate.

Yet not everything has stayed the same. An awful lot has changed for entrepreneurs during the past quarter-century or so – and for women entrepreneurs in particular.

In the course of my PhD studies, I interviewed a number of women who had moved into self-employment. Much more recently, as a professor, I tracked them down and interviewed them again to discover how their perceptions and pursuit of a career might have altered. Revisiting their original accounts and bringing their stories up to date was both moving and revealing.

This is what we found out.

1. The “rules of the game” aren’t the same
Many of the study’s respondents were surprised when reminded of the social attitudes that underpinned their original interviews. Small wonder: society’s ideas about what represents a suitable and legitimate career for a woman have come a long way.

While working from home in the ’90s, for example, some interviewees observed strict hours and wore smart clothes in an attempt to bolster their sense of professionalism. Their fear was that they weren’t taken seriously as “sole practitioners”.

Such negative perceptions are much less common now, with some subjects even suggesting that today it’s men who are likelier to be regarded with suspicion if they work from home. As one respondent said: “Women sole practitioners are brave and radical. Male sole practitioners are there because they can’t get on in firms.”

2. Work-life balance is an imperative, not a woman’s problem
In the ’90s women worked at work and worked at home. Today they speak of work-life balance as the new ethical imperative and something that impacts heavily on how they think about and organise their lives.

In the first set of interviews the idea of balance had almost no resonance. The concept didn’t even feature in the wider lexicon. In the second set of interviews it was clearly an established theme. As one respondent remarked: “Women have always worked, but I think it’s just accepted now that women have a career.”

It may be worth noting that what we now know as work-life balance was once viewed only as a “women’s problem” – that is, a conundrum faced exclusively by mothers. Now it’s more of an issue for men, too – although whether they see their domestic duties as responsibilities or choices remains open to debate.

3. Doing it for the children” is a myth
Women still assume primary care responsibilities, and in many cases self-employment and success help them to fulfil these traditional roles. Yet it would be quite wrong to say most women leave organisations for family reasons, as many other factors are routinely involved.

They include exclusion from key decision-making processes, the stress and tedium of attempting to fit in, the frustration that comes from glacial change and a sense that personal values and objectives may not be in keeping with corporate ideals. These factors are purely organisational.

Revisiting their original accounts, some subjects actually confessed to exploiting the myth themselves. Having originally insisted she left her job for the sake of her daughter, one conceded when re-interviewed: “Actually, it was for me. I wanted to make the move.”

4. Loved ones can be a hindrance as well as a help
Family and friends frequently have a substantial influence on the path of women’s careers – often more so than relationships in the workplace. It’s vital to acknowledge that this influence isn’t invariably positive.

All of the interviewees depicted their lives as profoundly entwined with those of others. Many spoke of the roles played by partners, children, parents or grandparents. Their dependents, whether deliberately or otherwise, circumscribed what could and couldn’t be done.

These “circles of influence”, as they might be termed, may result in capitulation or rebellion. One respondent told how her dreams of a career in domestic science were shattered by her father’s insistence that she become a nurse; another said she would almost automatically do the very opposite of what she imagined her family would want.

5. Entrepreneurship sustains
The ’90s have come to be seen as a decade of enterprise. With recession biting, outmoded notions and suffocating bureaucracy made way for individual liberty and wealth creation. Plus ça change...

Twenty or so years ago, even if they didn’t necessarily buy into policymakers’ rhetoric, many subjects plainly saw self-employment as a means of escape. Now most are reaping the rewards – success, independence and even the freedom to work past “normal” retirement age if they wish.

They’re also happy – and proud – to acknowledge what they are. As one interviewee who was formerly horrified to be labelled an entrepreneur admitted: “What I realise now is that Mrs Thatcher, whom I hated with a passion, did me a really good turn.”

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women's Careers, published by Oxford University Press.