Why Lockdown Hit Female-Owned Businesses The Hardest

Amid homeschooling and the financial pressures of Covid-19, female entrepreneurs were forced to dramatically adapt the way they, and their businesses, work.

Just five weeks into their brand new business, Natalie Hartley and Pia McKenary found themselves having to completely overhaul their entire model. Coronavirus and the national lockdown had meant their sparkling new refill shop and cafe would suddenly have to transform into online orders and deliveries.

But there was another major factor in the mix too: Five children, all under the age of eight, who were all now stuck at home.

“It was a struggle, a massive struggle really,” Hartley told HuffPost UK.

“I was homeschooling my children, who are five and seven, all day and then working on the business until 2am most nights, trying to keep it all going.

And they were not alone.

Female entrepreneurs have been disproportionately hit by Covid-19.

Research published by Iwoca, one of Europe’s largest lenders to small businesses, in August found that 23% of women-owned businesses were still closed following the lockdown – compared to just 14% of male-owned enterprises.

Despite contributing some £85bn to the UK economy, women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. The reasons why exactly are complex – with the virus hitting many sectors dominated by women, such as the beauty industry, particularly hard, and women taking on homeschooling and additional caring duties as schools closed.

A UCL study, released in July, revealed that women spent more than double as much time as men on their children’s home schooling and development during lockdown.

Mothers with primary school-aged children were also “considerably more likely” to have given up working than fathers with children of the same age, it was found in the same research.

Natalie Hartley and Pia McKenary, who run The Pantry at 51 in Prestwood, Buckinghamshire, had to self-build a website that would allow them to start a click-and-collect framework for their zero-waste shop, while also juggling the sudden demands of homeschooling.

“The kids had Google classrooms on the laptop but they had no idea, they’ve never worked a laptop before so I was there all the time,” Hartley explains. “Suddenly I was juggling both [home schooling and the business] full on, all day.

“The stress, the tiredness, we were both exhausted. We both got ill afterwards, and I think the children probably didn’t get the attention they deserved from me because I was trying to balance both.

“It would have been good to have been able to give just one thing 100%, but it was 50/50 constantly which was so tough.”

The Iwoca figures, gathered from a survey of more than 450 businesses, also show that 60% of female entrepreneurs said they wouldn’t take time off in the next year, with 47% of men saying the same.

And 42% of women who own businesses said they do not intend to take a salary in the next 12 months, compared with 38% of men.

Julia Brightman set up a catering business, run from home in Bedford, three years ago, and specialises in serving vintage afternoon teas. Overnight Covid-19 wiped out her usual business as parties, weddings and conferences were cancelled.

Having previously had cancer, Brightman was particularly vulnerable to the virus and so shielded for the first months of the crisis. Her emergency government grant came to just £108.

Julia Brightman, owner of Creme Brew Lait
Julia Brightman, owner of Creme Brew Lait
Julia Brightman

Faced with total disruption to her future income, she was forced to reimagine her business – and what started out as the delivery of gingerbreads by post for Easter has now transformed into the development of Covid-safe ordering system for treat boxes.

“All the time I was having to think ‘what can I do, what can I do, what can I do?’” she said. “I’ve just had to do whatever I can really to keep it going.

“I would normally have other people helping me out, but with social distancing I couldn’t do that so I really had to diversify.

“I’m not the main breadwinner in my household but we do rely on my income too. At the point of lockdown I didn’t have any reserves, and all the time I was thinking about my daughter going to university which obviously is a very costly experience. I had to keep the wage coming in.”

Interior architect Marie-Noelle Swiderski, who is based London but works internationally, told HuffPost UK that while the impacts of Covid-19 had been felt relatively evenly across her industry in terms of gender, more women had been impacted as they still make up the majority of the sector.

She said: “Interior design is still quite female dominated, and I’m in touch with a lot of my peers – either because we’re ex-colleagues or studied together or whatever.

Marie-Noelle Swiderski
Marie-Noelle Swiderski
Marie-Noelle Swiderski

“A lot of them remained super busy and it’s hard to gauge why and what makes their clientele different from another designer’s. But while some have never been so busy, others are at complete zero and are really concerned about how they’re going to manage.”

As founder of the Athena Network, an international networking and business development club open exclusively to women, Jacqueline Rogers said she had seen firsthand the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on female entrepreneurs.

“If they [the business owner] have children, then nine times out of 10 they are the ones who have been responsible for them. It’s like responsibility has been abdicated and ‘you’re the mum, you’re the better at home schooling, you’re the one who makes all the decisions, cooking, ironing, all of those sorts of things’.

“It has really impacted their business because of the number of hours they can then work during the day, so they’re working during the night. For those of them who are not willing to give up on their business they’re having to wait until the children go to bed.

“Quite often their partners have their feet up in the evening, doing whatever they normally do, and the mum, the housekeeper, the teacher, is going on to run their business in the evening.”

While the country has moved away from the full lockdown seen in spring and non-essential business are now allowed to open (though with heavy measures and, in some cases, curfews in place), female entrepreneurs are still struggling with the aftermath.

Rogers said: “Although we have seen things opening up, that doesn’t stop the emotional impact on people. It’s not easy to pivot a business overnight, it’s not easy to set one up in the first place – any business can take from 18 months to three years to start flourishing.

“All of a sudden that business that was flourishing has had to change, and they’ve had to take into consideration all the other things.”

But, Rogers explained, the impact hasn’t been entirely negative, and in many cases entrepreneurs have been pushed to reconsider how they work. She said: “Better boundaries are being put in places, so maybe they were put upon when it came to all the additional responsibility and now it’s like ‘no, that’s not how it’s going to continue – in the future this is how it’s going to work.’

“That might be that they’re leaving, or the husband has got to leave, or that they have to divide the responsibility more equally between them.

“It’s not like it was brilliant before lockdown. What this situation has done is highlight just how much women have to do, and that they have always been doing it.”

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