Helping women in business: Tokenism or “aspirational” assistance?

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Question: Do female business owners need “aspirational” assistance to sell their services or products? Answer: Depends on $$ at stake and who you ask.

Here are two true and interesting stories I recently found, sourced to links provided in a National Association for Women Business Owners (NAWBO) newsletter. After reading them, I propose – if you want some excitement today — that you duplicate my social science experiment and report your findings back in the “comment” section.

News item 1:
It’s one thing to promote giving race- and gender-neutral “small business” a leg up when awarding public building contracts – that usually meets with politically-correct applause. It’s quite another core value to embrace gender/race as a criteria. Even so, Cuyahoga County, Ohio is doggedly going forward with such a mission, investing $250,000 on a study to learn whether it would be legally possible to give first consideration to women- and minority-owned firms when awarding county contracts.

At the heart of the debate is construction of a 31-story, $260 million convention center expected to be completed in 2016. County officials want to see women- and minority-owned businesses involved. The affirmative-action thrust is a tough case to make, however, a contractor sued Cuyahoga County in 2000 for preferential contract treatment, leading it to repeal its Equal Economic Opportunity Program. This time around, the county is paying for a bulletproof legal clause, calling the desired result an “aspirational” versus mandated goal — though making no bones about the fact they will, in fact, take gender into account when making contract awards if the study shows such consideration to be legally defensible.

News item 2:
In a loosely related story, Walmart’s “Empowering Women Together” program recently won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Citizenship Award for “Best Economic Empowerment Program.” Launched in March, 2013, the Empowering Women Together program is an online shopping destination on Walmart.com that highlights products created by women-owned businesses. Currently, Walmart features 26 such global small businesses on the site, with 400 product offerings.

Your experiment: Poll 5 white men. Ask them what they think about how Cuyahoga County is spending its $250,000 tax/fee revenue? Also, ask if they think gender or race should be a basis for earning “extra points” for construction contracts. Then poll 5 women and ask them the same question.

Poll another 5 white men and ask them what they think of Walmart’s preferential marketing site? Then poll 5 more women. How do the reactions to this story differ from the reactions to the first news item? Why?

My poll findings

As a group, the white men I polled very vocally do not like news story #1 – a result made especially clear when I had a male question them versus me. They are much more neutral about story #2. Those who said it was actually “nice”, when asked why, said they imagined small items of little significance being sold to other women. Female respondents showed more mixed responses to story #1, regardless of the gender of the person asking for their opinion, but they very much liked story #2. However, they imagined items of higher value being showcased by Walmart, and great success for the women whose businesses were profiled.

In a third news item of note, Mary Barra will assume the top leadership position at General Motors (GM) on Jan. 15. She started with GM when she was 18, is currently the global head of product development, and she earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in business administration. Every news story about her appointment noted, also, that she will be the first woman to serve as CEO of a major car company.

How glad I personally will be when a successful woman’s gender is no longer newsworthy.

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About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses — the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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