The Incredible Invisible Woman

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Women in business, one of the fastest growing segments of the self-employed, and yet we know very little about them. Half of America’s workers are women. More and more women are entering the workplace and more and more women are entering at the business and professional level than ever before.

Yet when Juanita Ohanian applied for a business loan at the First Women’s National Bank in Rockville Maryland, she was denied the loan unless she had her husband’s signature. Ohanian had operated her commercial offset printing and photocopying business for 12 years. The business was financially secure and she was earning twice her husband’s salary!

In spite of their numbers in the work place, women such as Ohanian are not always taken seriously when it comes to running a business. I don’t think that lenders are discriminating because of gender necessarily. It’s probably more because they don’t know how to relate to women business onwers. Women have different values and these values are showing up in how women design their businesses.

Women business owners, for example, often work with their husbands. They are more likely than men to accommodate their work schedules around family needs. For example, Hannah Anderson a clothing retailer in Portland, has on site day care and flexi-time for it’s workers. There are also many women business owners working from their homes as telecommuters.

My daughters have watched their mother develop her business from home. When they were babies, they slept in the bassinet next to my desk. Occasionally I would even take one them to business meetings, rocking her in her baby carrier, as I took notes.

When my daughter Bianca was about 5, I heard her call out to me as she passed me in the kitchen, “Bye, Bye Mommy; I’m going to a meeting.” She was dressed in an apron and high heels (my castoffs), pushing her doll carriage with one hand and carrying a briefcase in the other. (Actually the briefcase was a blue plastic crayola marker case but she has quite an imagination.)

This blending of family and work roles is commonly seen in couple-owned and family-owned enterprises. Yet women who attempt to blend both roles must fight invisibility. For example, I lost a contract to provide certain psychological services because my office is at home. I was told that home offices are not professional enough. However, I always thought I was clever to find a way to be with my family and still develop my career interests. Obviously this is not a value shared by the contractor.

Sometimes women reinforce this invisibility themselves. In an effort to maintain her role as wife and her role as business owner a woman may feel she has to take a “backseat” to her husband. For example, I asked a co-entrepreneurial couple to tell me their official business titles. Although the wife had started the business five years before her husband joined her, she told me she was a “sales associate,” while her husband said he was “vice president.”

Other copreneurial wives tell me that they share ownership of the business equally with their husbands, yet they rarely list their title as “owner” or “president.” Usually they are listed as “secretary” or “treasurer.” Their husbands on the other hand, frequently list themselves as “co-owner.” So it appears that the need to hold back is coming from the wives, not the husbands.

Every so often I get a call from a copreneurial wife asking for help with her marriage. She and her husband are struggling with balancing their personal relationship and their business partnership. Whether or not the wife was the business founder, she is usually the one with the most trouble accepting the power struggle with her husband. Men seem more comfortable with power negotiations and are at a loss as to why their wives are distressed.

Simply the wife has to learn to be assertive with her husband. She must draw boundaries around her turf. This is something that men do all of the time, but women may feel that they are being too “bossy.” Women need to realize that most of the time their husbands are not offended by clear, assertive, decisive actions. In fact the chief complaint I hear from copreneurial husbands is that their wive’s don’t speak up! So he doesn’t know what she wants, nor how to help her get it.

If women business owners are to be more visible, they need to be bold and speak up. They need to educate lenders and others about the values of blending family and work life. They need to teach their daughters how to be true to her feminine spirit and yet develop her creative side through career, professional and business.

Last year there was a great deal of controversy about the first national “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” Some said that sons should have equal time. While it is valid that a son should have the opportunity to learn about his mother’s and father’s careers, daughters need an extra helping hand right now.

To bust the myth of invisible working women, business owners and others, girls need to see women at work. They need to be educated about how to successfully balance the demands of family life and work life. Women business owners are in a wonderful position to do just that.

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