Breaking The ‘Triple Glass Ceiling’ For Women In Social Enterprise

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“I would encourage people to look at the wonderful work of women in social and environmental enterprises have created and learn from their journey.”

Empowering women and achieving gender equality are not only moral imperatives, they are crucial to creating inclusive, open, and prosperous societies. Yet the barriers to doing so are daunting.

Photo: Amanda Clarke
Photo courtesy Amanda Clarke

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” So far, social enterprise has played a small but significant role in women’s empowerment on a global scale, but there is still a lot of work to be done and it’s imperative that governments, funders, social enterprises, and women’s organizations work together to achieve this by the target date of 2030.

In this conversation with Servane Mouazan, I came to understand that supporting females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) was very much linked to fighting against stereotypes, false expectations, and erroneous beliefs about women. For the past 20 years working in the field, the CEO of Ogunte has been contributing to prove that women can solve pressing social and environmental issues and create commercial opportunities at the same time, when given the skills and space to do so.

Can you talk to me about where your passion for conscious innovation comes from?

I think my involvement in conscious innovation, and women’s leadership, is just an attempt of understanding the world and understanding how I can define my own identity as a woman. Conscious innovation is a process by which you collectively develop tools or improve existing situations that enable groups of people and their environment to flourish together, without harming each other. It’s not a textbook, it’s a perpetual questioning and learning process. I think that from an early age, I was never interested in being defined by one thing or another, I was just interested in everything that moved. My driver was about connecting people. I developed multiple interests, and learned to strike conversations with people from all walks of life. I was also looking for ways to be useful, and looking at it now, connecting people was most probably about finding ways to make them ‘reconcile’. My parents separated when I was 7, I had a brother who was 2, and my mum, a primary school teacher, remained single. We never lacked anything but there were times I could feel the economic situation was strenuous. She had principles, robust values, was very artistic and socially minded. A curious character, with strong values and solution focused, she was always interested in making things better for people. I think seeing her evolve as a strong individual has been fundamental in my development and appreciation of women’s contribution. My father worked for the French Child Protection services and was also a politically engaged singer-songwriter. That makes for a complex mix where education, society, arts, strong personalities, leadership, and passionate topics were at the center of many conversations.

Your first interest was around social and environmental change. What would you say makes it particularly more challenging for women to develop a business in these precise areas?

You have to break down the situation. In many countries:

  • Women don’t earn the same wages as men
  • Women’s time is more restricted due to stereotyped caring expectations
  • Social enterprises, although on the rise, don’t attract the same amount of capital than mainstream profit-seeking businesses, due to the risks involved, and the fact their financial objectives are aligned with their social purposes. Not everybody is clear about how to translate this in return on investment
  • Women who choose to work in social enterprises will then evolve in a context where there is less capital and that is not taken as ‘business that are counted with’ by mainstream media. Sadly, they are still patted on the head for ‘doing good’
  • A lot of women are still expected (a stereotype!) to be the ones ‘who should care’ and are predominantly involved in education, arts, social care, etc. These are areas that are historically less retributed. You’ll notice that in many cases women are expected to deliver these activities for free — or less — as part of some wrongly defined attributes. Which is nonsensical at most.
  • When you touch on environmentally-focused businesses, a lot of them imply advanced technology. Now I have been lucky to support fantastic women in the field, but we do need a bigger pipeline of women in the sector (and in the STEM funnel) to create a massive wave of leaders and professionals.

I could go on all day, but you feel that the key challenge are stereotypes, false expectations, and erroneous beliefs. It is then harder to break the mold.

The Ogunte Women’s Social Leadership Awards recognize women who offer sustainable solutions to pressing social issues.

The problem is actually deeper when you look at it from an intersectional perspective; June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation says that there is a triple glass ceiling. “You are a woman. Then you are a woman in business, then you are a woman in social business,” Erika Brodnock, a serial entrepreneur, and parenting expert, Founder and CEO of Karisma Kidz, and a black woman, said to me: “Wait till you see what happens when you are a “Black Woman in Social Enterprise!”

What are the remaining barriers of gender-equality in business?

Gender equality, in business and outside of it, needs to be designed with and not just for people. We have to change the language, the beliefs, the stereotypes and the attitudes. Crucially, we need action, scaled risked action. We also need men and people in power to sponsor women, open doors, endorse, promote, and crucially bow out to make space for women with strong credentials. That said, it is valid as an intersectional principle, not just ‘women’, which is a vast polymorph group!

So, where are the heroes that will bow out? Women lead only 5% of global companies but in the UK, 40% of social enterprises are led by female. How do you explain these figures?

I don’t know if both are correlated. Women tend to network more through proximity, which means they will be aware of local structural issues that touch them in their lives. And as they have been ‘assigned’ local social roles, they will get involved with what is around them. Community groups and social enterprises tend to be more locally focused entities. It is one way of explaining it. Again, it is a long-dragged stereotype that push people to expect women to work for free or for much less in communal activities. It has near to zero value on the employment market, and the problem becomes more alarming when you see figures around women of color and women with disabilities.

The other stereotype is the idea that you can not be a global business leader without ‘sacrificing’ your womanhood. Look at how people judge or describe leaders and their performance. A recent study: The Power of Language: Gender, Status, and Agency in Performance Evaluations, shows that “long standing and widely gender bias and gender beliefs may implicitly influence performance expectations and evaluations”. The study stresses that it explains why women often lack perceived legitimacy in leadership positions.

This is ingrained in our heads, we all perpetuate it. We have to stop this and talk more about spousal partnership, communities of care, collaboration, mutuals, delegation, redistribution of decision-making power.

Another issue is that the statistics by Social Enterprise UK from which you hold that figure include various types of structures under the name ‘Social Enterprises’. We haven’t finished the work around the definition. You know that a lot of small and medium enterprises operate with strong social principles but do not label themselves as social enterprises, simply because they are not aware of it. It is complex. Not a positive context to fight for the top job, is it?

Finally, we quote 40% of social enterprises led by women, but rarely the still alarming gender pay gap even within the sector (above 20%). The report by the British Council, Activist to entrepreneur: the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment, to which we contributed, reflects the complexity of the issue.

Photo courtesy Daljeet Panesar

Where does the name of your organization, Ogunte, come from?

I have been practicing Capoeira  —  the Brazilian martial art  —  since 1998 and have been very privileged to have a deeper insight into the Brazilian cultural tradition. The mother of a Capoeira friend came to me one day and said, “Você… menina, você é da Yemanja Oguntê!” [“You… girl, you are from Yemanja Oguntê!”]

Ogunte is the name of a female spirit  —  or Orixa — from the Candomble tradition. This tradition originally comes from the Yoruba religion (in actual Nigeria). Ogunte is one of the seven avatars or ‘paths’ of Yemanja, who rules over the salted seas. She is a mighty warrior, but also a helper and a protector. When I started my community development and events production business in 2001 — I was living in the Netherlands then — I didn’t want to call it Servane Mouazan Ltd, it was never about me! Ogunte was the most obvious way to follow. Little did I know that it was an adventure that would last almost 20 years and bring me to gender equality campaigning, women’s human rights, and social entrepreneurship!

Only about 5% of venture funding goes to women. Yet, we know that women involved in the decision-making process are good for the bottom line in business. How do you explain that we are still so far from gender equality here?

Change is something for people who have the bandwidth, who are sensitive to the questions, humble, and conditioned to embrace it. Change is for people who accept they are making mistakes, that they can learn and be better at what they do, who can “do better things”  —  as AI expert and mental health campaigner Pete Trainor says  —  and can challenge their identity.

Change is about dropping habits, it is painful and requires discipline. Change is sometimes about losing power and making space for others. Not accepting the facts nor the evidence seems to be a detrimental human trait. Sadly, we notice that in current politics. Do you see now why accepting the facts might not serve everybody’s interest?

Women represent only about one quarter of the workforce in STEM in developed countries and even less in developing countries. How can we reverse this trend?

Again it is a question that leads to stereotypes and outdated narratives. It feels like a class war, where only the privileged and people without caring responsibilities can handle this cognitive area. This is a crazy and dangerous belief. My rough feeling is that when something poses an issue, or something is complex to market or ‘sell’, you should embed it across everything you do. I would stop clustering STEM as a separate topic. Technologies, science, engineering, and maths are around us, within us, in nature, in arts, in the built environment, in manufacture, in design, everywhere. How about inserting the understanding and practice of STEM as an indicator of progress in every profession, in every community group. It might help reconcile people with the fact they are actually practicing STEM in their everyday life, and stop pedantic discourse from others, reserving STEM related activities to only a few.

Gender equality is a core foundation for tackling poverty, reducing violence and improving education. We also know of great examples of women empowering their communities by building their solar energy business. It might sound redundant but once we know all of this, what is it that we can do — you, me, The Beam readers — so the world becomes more equal and fair to women?

Design better products, services, continue to bring about evidence and facts in every conversation, challenge stereotypes. A great example for this is in the work on Frontier Markets in India, led by the very impressive social entrepreneur Ajaita Shah.

Frontier Markets is a last-mile distribution company with a mission to create ‘Saral Jeevan’ or an ‘Easy Life’ for rural customers by providing them with access to quality clean energy solutions through a network of digitized rural entrepreneurs, with women at the center of the value chain.

Ajaita and her team are a step ahead of others because they understand the need to design with people, and not for people. She can segment the groups of women who work as distributors, repairers, and sellers in the network. From her close monitoring and evaluation process, she is able to play to the strength of each individual and make their progress a reality, and her venture a success. So believing that gender equality is only about putting women on a magazine front cover or as a token on a company board is a total delusion. We need to be more scientific and pragmatic in how we look at our campaigning, recognizing the needs and expectations of people, the lack of infrastructures or the wrong narratives. It’s all good, for instance, to put women to work, but if childcare is not recognized as a fundamental infrastructure issue, that impacts on everyone; men, women, families, businesses, communities, and we are just doing a lazy, incomplete job.

What we can do is learn to act in a systemic way. When you see an issue, you need to understand what is at play, who the closest and then most remote stakeholders are. It might not be obvious straight away but through conversations, observation, human-centered research, monitoring and a humble look at situations, we see foundation issues emerging and we can make a head start. We have to engage beyond silos and cultural clusters.

Ogunte helps women make a positive impact on people and the planet. Photo courtesy Daljeet Panesar

Could you give us examples of women Ogunte recently supported in bringing their sustainable solutions to life?

The Kering Corporate Foundation is dedicated to combat violence against women. They do this through supporting a range of social entrepreneurs combating violence against women. We helped the Foundation to re-assess their innovative programming from an intersectional point of view, engaging various stakeholders in co-designing, and implementing new learning programs and campaigning actions together.

We have developed a learning series, Futureheads AI, for women in social entrepreneurs who have to work intensively with technology to create an impact. Too often headlines focus on future gazing topics but fail to support entrepreneurs in creating appropriate internal processes and communication strategies that make your team embrace changes.

We also work on support to women in finance and leadership. We believe that a stronger ecosystem of advisors, supporters, and finance providers, that operates with a conscious gender-lens, can contribute to grow women in social enterprises and their work. So a big part of our work consists in equipping senior women to support this ecosystem better. For instance, we created learning sessions for women willing to move from functional lead to CEOs.

In the past three years, we’ve collaborated with groups of women in social finance, equipping them to translate their knowledge and experience into a language that mainstream audience grasp; we help them access and stay on investment board and bring about fresh and bold influence.

What do you consider as the most important things you’ve learned over the course of your career?

Love, listen, observe, ask questions. If it doesn’t work, put your pride and your guilt aside, don’t linger on the slow path, and do something else, but only if it is about doing better.

What would be your top three pieces of advice to a woman who is building her first sustainable project or business today?

  • Have a pot of money to fall back on to pay your bills. If it means working a second job, do it. Your personal finances must be tidy.
  • Assume that what you want to do already exists; seek to improve the existing offer and talk to people, service users, and learn to listen well. Otherwise you will crash.
  • Budget for personal development (coaching, mentoring), and technical skills upskilling (finance, business/project management, technology, basic legal knowledge). That means don’t expect anything for free, don’t perpetuate the problem that women or social entrepreneurs are acting on the cheap side.
  • And a bonus fourth tip: learn from a very early stage to put a logical process in place, don’t reinvent the wheel. Imagine from the start that your team will grow. How will they know what to do and get going from day one? Put your business house in order. The secret is to always base these processes upon interactions, human conversations. Don’t waste your time creating something that nobody will ever use.

Is there anything you would like to add? Any project you would like us to spotlight?

I would encourage people to look at the wonderful work of women in social and environmental enterprises have created and learn from their journey. We are sharing this on our website. Finally we are growing a community of women in social businesses all over the world. You just need to pin your business on the Impact Women Network map and start micro conversations through Twitter with a changemaker in another country or your own. We want to connect one million women this way so that they gain more influence and opportunities to collaborate. We need a positive chain reaction!


Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou

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