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Self-defined “fempreneurs” are female business owners who occupy an increasing share of businesses ranging from startups to global brands. This gender-first personal branding is prevalent, but in the larger scheme of equality in the workplace, is it helping or hurting?
The natural assumption would be that “fempreneurship” aims to create a world in which women have permission to be feminine at work. This delineation is sometimes synonymized with “lipstick entrepreneurs” or “mompreneuers.” It would make sense if the movement and messaging centered around a culture in which traditionally masculine traits — like forthrightness, aggression and initiative — are counterbalanced by traditionally feminine traits like nurture or kindness. However, that appears to not be the case. Rather, “fempreneurs” are bold, intense and vying for a seat where decisions are made. These women appear to be passionate about leadership roles and freedom, which begs the question: Why self-define according to gender at all?
A few key voices have emerged over the last couple of years that have advanced a cultural shift for women in the workplace. While these figureheads are female, they would probably not call themselves “fempreneuers.” Their perspective provides helpful guidance as women decide whether to create their own playing field or continue to strive for a level one.
Melinda Gates: Leadership
Melinda Gates is consistently considered to be one of the most powerful women in the world. Some might even edit that to say one of the most powerful people. Her philanthropic efforts are virtually unrivaled in modern society, and The Gates Foundation is a leading entity in innovation, education and human rights worldwide. Gates undoubtedly is a force in the cause of women’s rights, but her efforts in this arena have a far wider vision than putting women in positions of leadership. She is quoted as saying, “When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.” It isn’t just for the end result of female empowerment, or creating a female-first culture, that she labors. Rather, she sees that when an underrepresented segment of the population is lifted up, everyone will benefit.
Sara Blakely: Fearlessness
Sara Blakely is the founder of Spanx and a famed self-made billionaire. Her product line of slimming female garments naturally positioned her as a female-first brand, but her message on entrepreneurship is universally applicable. She came from humble beginnings and champions an honest and tough approach to business that favors independence and allows for failure. Her advocacy of fearlessness in the face of trying something new is unflinching: “Most of the reason we don’t do things is because we’re afraid to fail. I just made a decision one day that I was not going to do things in my life because of fear.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Blakely pledged $5 million to female entrepreneurs and business owners. But it’s clear from her example and messaging that authenticity, clarity of vision and relentless ambition typified her meteoric rise.
Sheryl Sandberg: Leaning in
A third cultural icon shaping feminine leadership is Sheryl Sandberg, whose bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, challenged women in business worldwide to think differently about their roles and behavior. While the 2010 TED talk that preceded it and the book itself launched a monumental cultural conversation, Sandberg is not talking about gender-first female business identity or leadership. In the book, she explains, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” While her work has empowered women immensely, she is not as quick to draw a line in the sand between what women and men can or can’t do. Rather, she is interested in a system in which those who play best are the ones who win.
This strike at ownership in the male-dominated world of business is born out of decades of frustration and inequality. To be sure, equal rights is a worthy cause, and one that is increasingly visible and seeing some wins. In April 2021, the U.S. Women’s Soccer team sued for equal pay. Equal Pay Day 2021 saw wide scale media exposure, revealing that women still only make eighty-two cents for every dollar a man makes.
Even with more women than ever in executive leadership positions, only 8% of women are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. The inequality is real. But while dedicated advocacy has the potential to achieve positive change for women, it’s vital to remember that equality cuts both ways. The goal is not to change from a man’s world to a woman’s world or to carve out a niche of female entrepreneurship in which women can win. The goal is to create a world of equal opportunity, in which talent wins out, and everyone is judged on performance alone.