Training; Crack the glass ceiling: A new course is helping women overcome barriers to

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The Independent Online
INCREASING numbers of women are starting their own businesses. Over the past 10 years, 84 per cent more women have become self employed, compared with an increase of 56 per cent among men. On the face of it this suggests progress for women, but what it conceals is frustration at the discrimination practised by employers, particularly in small and medium-sized businesses, according to new research.

Masooda Makhtar, fellow in small and medium-enterprise management at the Manchester Business School, says that women enter business for different reasons than men, and are more determined to succeed. 'Women who run their own businesses have a higher survival rate, but often operate at the margins. If it does go bust, it will fold later. There are external and internal forces for this. Women have a different motivation.

'Some women starting their own businesses were those who were rejected in the wider world. Starting in business is their only way of using their talents in the way they want to.'

Larger corporations create fewer barriers for women who want to rise to the top, Ms Makhtar believes. But companies of all sizes often fail to make full use of women employees because of a dominant male culture.

The research being conducted by Ms Makhtar reveals that many women feel they are thought of first as females, second as employees, and only last as potential managers.

If more women are going to fight their way to the top, they are likely to need special training to help them get there. A pilot course is just completing its initial evaluation, and the women participants say they have become more confident and have learnt to value their own skills.

'It is personal confidence that enables men to leap ahead, and causes women to hold back,' says Leicester City Council's Kathy Kerswell Reid, the project's co-ordinator. The scheme is funded by Leicestershire TEC and the European Commission through its Force fund, involving partner schemes in Greece, Spain and Portugal where women are also turning to self-employment.

The project is based on open learning from three work books, along with personal support from mentors. The work books, soon to be available commercially, concentrate on raising confidence levels among women, enabling them to evaluate their own abilities and moving on to improving their management and supervisory skills.

''Women in management courses have concentrated on 'women-type' issues,' says Hilary Hale of Loughborough College, which was involved in designing the course's skill-assessment logs, enabling it to be NVQ accredited.

'We wanted to approach it from a different angle, to develop management and personal competences, and concentrate on raising performance standards of women in management,' adds Ms Hale. 'We used the management vocational standards as a basis, and from there we developed a package that was specifically tailored for helping women to achieve those standards. Women need to learn the same management skills as men. But some additional interpersonal skills may be necessary.'

Participant Sharon Ryan, who works for Britannia Labels, says the course has helped both herself and a colleague. 'We felt we needed to develop as individuals within our own organisation. It was a good opportunity to become stronger and more confident, and to recognise our full potential. It doesn't matter if you are male or female in our company, but we are aware of problems for women in other companies. It has been very good for both of us to help us to deal with change, to accept it, and to go with those changes.'

Sheelagh Bishop, employed by the charity Environ, feels the course has been positive. 'There are sometimes unconscious barriers which you don't realise, for example the perception of women in meetings where we don't want to interrupt as much as men do. And the fact we have different ways of doing things. The course has made me analyse my skills and see where I am deficient, to consider my leadership skills and how to relate to a team.'

It is perception more than anything which is the barrier to women, and much still needs to be done to change men's attitudes. One deep-rooted belief is that women are more caring as managers, but less dynamic. Ironically, according to the course's organisers, there is little or no difference at all in the style of female and male managers.

Details of the open learning programme for women in SMEs are available on (0533) 526099.

(Photograph omitted)