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Why Aren’t There More Women Leaders in Screen Printing?

Marshall Atkinson asks what needs to happen for our industry to become more inclusive.

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I KNOW SOME FANTASTIC women in the screen printing industry. Some own the business. A few are in sales or marketing. Several are running the production floor or a department.

Others are in supportive roles at the company. So, while Screen Printing magazine celebrates the winners of the new Women in Screen Printing Awards, I think we need to take a serious look at how women in this industry evolve in their careers.

I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the talented women whom I’ve worked with over the years. They are smart, energetic, creative people. They paid their dues and rose through the ranks to lead. Working as a team, they always made the company better as they brought a fresh perspective to a challenge. Diversity of ideas always strengthens the outcome.

As a business coach, a few of my clients are women-owned businesses. But my personal history still doesn’t explain why we don’t see more women in leadership or ownership roles. So I thought it might be interesting to view things from a “What’s going on here?” perspective.

One business owner, Alison Banholzer with Wear Your Spirit Warehouse in Huntingtown, Maryland, and a 2020 Women in Screen Printing Award winner, pointed out something remarkable. “I find it interesting when I tell people I own Wear Your Spirit Warehouse. My husband was active duty and passed away in 2016, and they assume he started and built the business and I simply took it over when he passed. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Dave was a USAF Pilot (gone more than 200 days a year) with a top-level security clearance (was not getting involved in business dealings). As such, I would certainly bounce ideas off of him, and he would help if I needed some extra muscle moving equipment, but he did not start, manage, or make decisions for the business.”

Women-to-Men Ratio in the Workplace

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If the goal is to see more women in elevated roles in business, the first thing to do is take a snapshot of where women in the workplace are currently. All I know is my perspective, so I looked up a few points to get a glimpse of the current situation.

According to the US Department of Labor August 2020 report, women in the workforce between the ages of 25 to 54 have a slightly higher percentage of unemployment than men: 7.7 percent compared to 7.4 percent. If you compare the entire population of women and men who are employed, there’s a more significant contrast: 69.2 percent for women compared to 81.6 percent for men, which is a whopping 12.4 percent difference.

These two stats paint a picture, from the population perspective, that there are more men than women in the workforce. Does this mean there are less women to hire which could account for instances where a woman wasn’t in the talent pool for a promotion opportunity?

Women in Business by the Numbers

Overall, there are about 30.2 million small businesses in the United States. In this classification, a small business is a company that consists of less than 500 employees. That’s just about every company in this industry, as I can’t think of many with more than 500 employees.

According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, there are 11.6 million women-owned businesses in this country. That’s 38.4 percent of the total. Therefore, if you look at the numbers and percentages of women in the workforce, and the same stats for women business owners, there’s a significant disparity between women and men. These statistics prompted me to ask more questions and dig into this deeper.

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Moving the Needle

There’s a more considerable disparity between women owning a business and women working in a company. But what about women in executive or leadership roles? Does a woman have to own the business for it to “count?” According to this 2019 Business Insider article, there’s an unconscious bias toward men over women at the leadership level. The report states that for every 100 men promoted to their first managerial position, only 72 women got promoted.

If we want more women entrepreneurs in the industry, something has to move the needle. Is it because of the lack of business opportunities for women to seize? Or is it merely women waiting for permission to start?

For many entrepreneurs, getting a leg up in the industry and into a managerial role gives you the skills and confidence to start a business. Does that notion reflect your personal experience? How do you gain enough moxie inside to venture out on your own? Where does the driving sense of confidence start?

Starting a business is tough, no matter who you are, especially if the availability for start-up or operating capital is limited. Why don’t we see more women entrepreneurs in this industry? The answer could rest with the fact that there aren’t enough leadership or managerial opportunities to build the confidence to begin a business. I think this is the gap we’re talking about.

Small Business Facts

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According to the Small Business Administration, about 99.9 percent of companies in the United States are small businesses. On average, about 400,000 new businesses launch every year. Of those 30.2 million small businesses in this country, about 73 percent of them are individually operated, meaning there aren’t any other employees. 52 percent of these businesses are home-based. About 75 to 80 percent of small businesses are self-financed. 16 percent rely on bank financing, and the other approximately uses about 2 to 6 percent of loans from family or friends.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like the origin story of most shops? How many of the shops in this industry were launched in a basement, garage, out-building, or kitchen table?

Illustration of two women in the business

Changing Sales Environment May Favor Women

Here’s something interesting to note: now more than ever, this might be a time where women have the upper hand in sales. Let’s face it: generally, women have some advantages in biology and emotional intelligence that men lack.

In an article in Harvard Business Review, a team analyzed seven capabilities that set high-performance salespeople apart from each other and then broke it down by gender. The seven traits were:

  • Analyzing: understanding cause and effect and seeing big picture implications
  • Connecting: building a network of customers, team members, and other resources
  • Collaborating: working cooperatively with others
  • Shaping solutions: understanding customer needs and adapting the offer accordingly
  • Influencing: shaping their messages and style to maximize the impact
  • Driving: applying structured and planned approaches to deliver outcomes
  • Improving: continually seeking to do things better and being prepared to try new things

“Today’s digitally-savvy, self-sufficient, and more-informed buyers have new expectations of salespeople. Buyers expect salespeople to add value beyond what digital tools provide. To do this, salespeople need capabilities for collaborating with customers and shaping solutions. These capabilities, focused on addressing customer needs, have become more important for sales success than persuasion capabilities, such as influencing customers and driving outcomes. And this plays to women’s strengths,” according to the Harvard Business Review article.

In a post-COVID-19 world, empathy and collaboration could be two of the most critical factors for business success. I’d give that advantage to women for those traits, wouldn’t you? Given the world we live in today, should we expect to see a spike in women-owned businesses, or at least more women in critical positions?

Women discussing illustration

Some Hard Questions to Ask

While I believe there are many gray areas on this topic, I think for women to either own a business or take up a leadership role in a company it may come down to a few questions. I certainly don’t have a monopoly on the answers, but I want you to get your thinking caps on and start a conversation within your sphere of influence.

Brace yourself. There are no easy answers here.

  1. What is the reason more women don’t simply start a business? Based on the statistics, more men seem to take the risk of entrepreneurship. What is needed to get more women to take on this challenge?
  2. How are career decisions being made? If both a man and a woman with equal talent and skill are working for a company, is the career track based on performance or future potential? Both?
  3. How are the business owner or managerial positions identified, so the right career training, skills, and educational tracks are created? This lack of career nurturing is a developmental question, and at the crux at higher levels of entrepreneurship to follow.
  4. This article and line of questioning are about women not getting the opportunity to own a business or move into management or leadership roles. What if that doesn’t matter to the individual female worker? Is that ok? Some people, regardless of gender, want to do their jobs and go home. Are we overthinking this?
  5. Are women, by nature, more risk-averse than men? How can more women try their hand at doing something differently? What do they need to get started?
  6. While there are plenty of examples of fantastic women business leaders excelling in this industry, what role does motherhood play in the statistics? The work/life balancing act is probably in there somewhere. Do women consider choosing between motherhood or a career? [Editor’s note: Why is this question asked to women, but not to men?]
  7. Why is it that when a woman advocates for herself, speaks up, or assumes a leadership role,
    sometimes she is viewed as intimidating, bossy, or hostile? Those same traits exhibited by a man would be deemed favorable.
  8. Take a look at where you, your family, or your friends work at this moment in time. How are women represented in the ownership or executive leadership roles as a percentage? What are the key points that helped them achieve their success? I think charting this process might be an exciting place to begin.
  9. How does “fear of failure” play a role? What about the notion of “what other people think?” For women, what psychological triggers hamper them from getting started?
  10. If there was one thing that could be changed that would dramatically affect this challenge, what should happen? What are the next steps?

Advocate for Change

I’m a big believer in making things better. What needs to happen? Who are the right stakeholders for this conversation? This empowerment of women has to be tackled by people from all sides of the equation.

Alison Banholzer has the right idea: “One of the things I like best about owning a business is being able to foster leadership and managerial skills in teens and adults. I intentionally hire high school students and work around their schedules and study needs. I foster the qualities they bring to my shop and enhance them with real work experience. I also counsel them when needed to build an excellent employee with strong leadership skills and a solid work ethic for their future employers.”

Like other ideas, for real change to happen, difficult and sincere conversations have to take place. And like most big, scary topics these days, there are more questions than answers.
What do you think?

What can the industry do so there are more women leaders and business owners in screen printing? Answer in the comments section below.

VIDEO: MARSHALL ATKINSON AND ADRIENNE PALMER

Marshall and Adrienne discuss how to engage more women in the industry.

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at marshall@marshallatkinson.com

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