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Hit the glass ceiling? Well, just walk out

Decca Aitkenhead on the rise of the female entrepreneur pt
IF THE women's movement can still be said to exist, it is no longer easy to locate. Academia, its fertile home for more than 30 years, has become bogged down in a querulous quagmire, while the media, its other traditional haunt, long since ceased regarding feminism as sexy. But the struggle has been rediscovered in an unlikely new arena, one long reviled as macho, exploitative and irredeemably male-dominated: the business world.

A new breed of female entrepreneur, declares the think tank Demos in the latest issue of its quarterly magazine, is responding to the "glass ceiling" and inflexibility of mainstream corporate life by striking out on its own. These women are creating a newly feminised working world, promoting sisterly support through networking, and regard their success as the front line of modern feminist advancement. They are "business feminists".

"My business is a feminist achievement, yes," says Tracy Posner, 35. Seven years ago she held a senior position in a London advertising agency, until the birth of her first son. "The company seemed to regard my pregnancy as an act of disloyalty," she recalls. On her return she was transferred to what she saw as a lower-status job, so she quit and set up her own PR company.

"Flexibility is the single most important factor in women's lives today," she believes. "Big corporations have such unreasonable expectations of what people should do - and women won't stand for it. They are getting a balance in their lives by going on their own."

The growth of female entrepreneurship is impressive - women now own some 800,000 firms, and nearly a third of all those setting up companies via the Business Start Up scheme are women. For Ms Posner, it means she can work from home, keep the afternoons free for her two children, and employ staff as and when required. "It's the best decision I ever made."

In Demos's survey of 63 members of Forum UK, a networking organisation for professional and business women, more than half had been active in a feminist or women's organisation; just over one-third considered themselves feminists, and more than three-quarters felt that feminism was still relevant.

"A younger, more confident generation of managers are voting with their feet and positively embracing a DIY culture of self-promotion," says Helen Wilkinson, author of the report. "They are no longer content to be cast in the role of victims, and for many the decision to leave is an assertion of power."

But can women-owned businesses be feminist in any practical sense? Are they likely to be any more sympathetic to the needs of ordinary working women than a male-owned business? Jo Gardiner, campaigns manager of the Industrial Society, cautions: "Women may start out with the best intentions, but if times get tough they may then have to say, I'm sorry, but we just can't be that flexible."

Ms Posner admits that one of her greatest fears about expanding her business is precisely that: "I've heard women say they'd never employ other women, because they've got all these problems with children, and they always need time off."

Female entrepreneurs liberated from corporate discrimination report coming up against sexism from bankers, backers, even clients. According to Tina Knight, managing director of her own electronics company, that is the single biggest complaint voiced by members of Women into Business, the association she chairs. "You get questions such as, will your husband stand security? That sort of thing is still extremely common."

Businesswomen such as Ms Knight - who was anxious to say she always wears make-up and nail varnish - remain uncomfortable with the traditional ethos of the women's movement. "I don't know any successful women who are feminists," she scoffs. "Personally, I've always found the word very detrimental."

The British Association of Women Entrepreneurs, to which she belongs, also gives it short shrift: "We are not into feminism or any of this talk about glass ceilings." But, if these women are advancing the feminist cause - by, for example, providing female role models - does it matter if they reject the language?