Small Talk: Memo to satirists of sexism - that joke isn’t funny. Consciously or unconsciously, female entrepreneurs are still being held back


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The Independent Online

Terry Simmonds of the UK Small Business Directory says he was misunderstood. He insists a recent online post was a spoof inspired by a conversation he’d had with another male website entrepreneur rather prone to sexism – and not the insult to female businesswomen it was widely interpreted as being.

“This is a serious website for serious men with serious businesses,” Mr Simmonds originally wrote. “If you are just a little housewife running a little play business from home earning some pin money whilst your other half is out earning a living – please don’t register your business here.”

Hmm. One can see why so many people, both men and women, were less than impressed – and why Mr Simmonds was so keen to clarify his remarks.

The episode is yet another reminder that satire – let’s give Mr Simmonds the benefit of the doubt here – often doesn’t work well online, where it can be difficult to express tone. More to the point, it cuts rather too close to the bone because prejudice, whether blatant or more subtle, does continue to hold female entrepreneurs back.

That’s certainly the view of Erika Watson, founder of Prowess, an online centre for women in business: “The same kind of thinking essentially underpins much government small business policymaking – investment and support has increasingly focused on male-dominated sectors such as transport and construction, with no plan to increase women’s employment there. What about the social infrastructure and care economy, where women’s businesses dominate?”

Tina Boden, who founded the micro-business community Enterprise Rockers, is equally scathing: “To be recognised as a trading business by the UK government, you either have to be VAT registered, operate as a limited company or employ staff. Many women ...  are working hard to balance running a home, caring for children and running their own business – often from home – and if they do not fit the criteria as a ‘trading’ business they become invisible.”

Particularly worrying are attitudes in the creative industries – the so-called “new economy” where one might expect better. Dr Charlotte Carey, a senior lecturer on gender differentials at Birmingham City University, warns: “Some of the new creative sectors, such as software design and computer games, as well as TV and film, appear to be very male dominated.”

If policymakers, financiers and other authorities are not more attuned to the importance of female entrepreneurship, they’re really missing a trick. Prowess points to data showing that women now represent 17.5 per cent of the full-time self-employed workforce. And they are doing it the hard way: they tend to start businesses with around one-third of the finance their male counterparts have at their disposal.

On the upside, those who can overcome such challenges are just the entrepreneurs our economy needs.

Bosses get more time to grasp RTI filing

Good news for small businesses still struggling to get to grips with the demands of real-time information (RTI) – the introduction of penalties for those who fall foul of the system has been delayed.

Automatic fines for non-compliance that were due to be introduced in April will not now come into effect until October.

RTI is the HM Revenue & Customs system introduced in April 2013 that requires all employers to file details of payments made to staff under the PAYE system instantaneously, rather than in a single end-of-year return. While millions of employers have successfully made the switch to the new system using automated payment systems, some smaller businesses, particularly those that have traditionally used paper-based record-keeping, have found it harder to comply.

Colin Ben-Nathan, chairman of the sub-committee for employment taxes at the Chartered Institute of Taxation, says the delay is important. “HMRC has listened to our and others’ concerns and recognised that RTI represents a significant transition for employers,” he said. “It is only natural that many require time to adjust and learn.”

Late payers’ bill soars 52% in six months

More damning figures on the scale of the late payments problem causing small businesses so much trouble: small and medium-sized enterprises are now owed £55bn by customers overdue on their invoices, 52 per cent more than six months ago.

The figures, published by payments firm Sage Pay, underline the direction of travel for an issue that is getting worse not better, despite Government efforts to crack down on late payers.

The average small business is now owed £11,358 according to Sage Pay, while one in five companies has invoices of at least £30,000 outstanding. Tracey Ewen, the managing director of invoice finance company IGF Group, described the figures as a wake-up call for ministers who had hoped a code of best conduct on late payments might improve the practices of large businesses, which are often the slowest payers.

“Originally a beacon of hope, the Prompt Payments Code has slowly been eroded by the refusal of larger companies to take it seriously,” Ms Ewen said.

“If nothing changes, the UK economy will find itself in a situation where businesses are unable to take hold of opportunities for growth because they don’t have access to their own money.”

Small Business Man of the Week: Mike Bingham, Founder and CEO of Senior Response

“We founded the company in 2001. My background was in the call-centre industry – I’d bought a business in the mid-Nineties and sold it in 1998. As it was three years before I could do something else under the terms of the deal, I had time to think. I realised there was a niche to address the ageing population.

“Call centres are mostly staffed by kids, but older customers often respond really badly to them — our concept was to employ older people in order to service that demographic.

“We initially planned just to have people fielding advertising response calls, but it worked so well that we began making calls too – we work on behalf of blue-chip clients in sectors such as financial services, holidays, mobility and health, selling to older people in an ethical way.

“Our employers are all 50 or older; some are in their seventies. It’s their empathy that works well for us – they really sound trustworthy. We also find that while older employees tend to make fewer calls in a given time than younger people, the quality is much higher.

“We have 75 seats, which is small by call-centre industry standards, and we place all our calls manually, rather than using automation technology. The business is performing really well – our turnover last year was £1.5m and we expect it to reach £2m this year.”