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Women Need To Separate From Men To Succeed

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Forget trying to make it alongside men. It's time for working women to go it alone, argues entrepreneur Debbie Wosskow OBE

I would love to live in a world where I can walk into a boardroom and guarantee that half the faces at the table are women. Yet, right now, this feels like a distant dream in the UK. Why? Because all we’ve tried to do is reform an old system. Real change comes from something new. And radical as it may sound, in my opinion, for women to succeed, they need to separate from men and join forces in an all-female environment of their own.

There will always be exceptions, but on the whole, in a mixed-gender workplace, men tend to dominate discussions and put themselves forward as leaders. Women, meanwhile, are inclined to hold back.

In a female-only environment, women are more likely to speak up and to talk about their successes, but also talk honestly about the challenges they are facing. It’s hard to do that when you are permanently the only woman in the room.

I know this because – despite the fact I grew up in a family of female entrepreneurs and always knew I was going to build something of my own – I wanted access to more female role models. Women don’t have the same traditional networks that men do and we have fewer senior role models to inspire us. One in 10 women in the UK say they want to start their own business, but don’t. They say they are held back by a lack of confidence, lack of contacts and, they think, lack of skills. I say they’re held back because of our mixed-gender workplaces, too.

The UK still isn’t a great place to be a woman in business. There is huge gender imbalance in the world of investing and in the number of women in leadership roles. We’re in a world where men predominantly hold the purse strings and power. I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 25 – when I launched my first business, communications agency Mantra – and I’ve always pitched to men for money. When I was pitching for investment for my business Love Home Swap – a home-exchange club – I felt sure that thousands of other women would feel the same as I did and like the idea of staying in someone’s home, rather than a hotel, while they’re away. But male investors struggled to get it. On one occasion, one fund brought in their female receptionist to hear what I was outlining, as there were no other women in the room. But I kept at it – and that business went on to sell for $53m (in excess of £40m).

Fast-forward a number of years to a conversation I had with the founder of Elvie – a new app-based pelvic floor exerciser. She said she’d pitched to rooms of men who didn’t understand what she was talking about, let alone the importance of her product physically. Some businesses are created by women and for women – and that’s why we need more women investing and more starting businesses.

This year, I put my money where my mouth is and co-founded AllBright to help women generate the capital, confidence and connections they need to start and grow their own businesses. We’ve launched an investment fund, an academy and now – most pertinently – The AllBright, a members’ club for working women in London, to celebrate and encourage female talent. Women-only spaces offer community, connection and a supportive environment – there’s a camaraderie and sense of ‘girls in it together’.

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This isn’t an anti-men move – I have men as investors, fantastic men in my team and 25% of the AllBright board are men. Nor is it about giving up on the fight for a seat at the table. It’s about levelling the playing field in the way that single-sex schools have been arguing their case for years. Because sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress. We thrive most when we see what people like us – other women – have achieved.

All-female environments are often portrayed as being a hotbed of bitchiness, but that’s not my experience. They are actually incredibly supportive, where everyone connects and spurs each other on. In fact, we chose the name ‘AllBright’, inspired by former US Secretary of State. Madeleine Albright, who famously said, ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.’

We can’t stay in our girl gangs forever, of course. We have to integrate with men because that’s the way the world works, men are woven into the fabric of business and life. But by building these relationships in a separate space, we can give women the confidence to truly take a seat at the table.

Only one in six people in leadership positions in big corporates is a woman. Once those stats are up to 50/50, I’ll hang up my stilettos. But until then, we need to drastically change the economic landscape for women. Trying to do this with men in the same room as us hasn’t worked so far.

The AllBright is opening in London in 2018; www.theallbright.co

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