Women in business: why we matter

Why, after more than 25 years, do we still publish Women in Business, a once-a-year special section that celebrates businesswomen of the San Juan Islands?

After all, don’t we live in a time when women have careers, own their own businesses, and run multi-million dollar corporations? So why do we devote a special section after all these years?

Let me offer at least one reason: It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when women had far fewer rights than they do now. Far fewer.

For example, in America in the 1970s married women, when referred to in print, never had first names: It was Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. William Jones. Banks had the right to refuse you a line of credit without your husband’s signature. If you were lucky enough to get a professional job, getting pregnant could result in termination. Airline attendants (stewardesses) were exclusively young, attractive, single women required to maintain a designated weight, and stay single or risk losing their job.

Not that long ago, women did not report the TV news, few were admitted into law school, medical school, or the military; mailmen, firemen, and policemen were all off-limits.

The idea of a woman owning her own business and competing with men in a man’s world was not particularly encouraged. In fact, some thought the idea laughable.

Against this backdrop of patriarchal regulations, fueled by a rising feminist movement evidenced by the formation of the National Organization of Women, Ms. Magazine, and a growing wave of feminist literature and spokespeople, American women began to demand equality. The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923 and finally passed by Congress in 1972 to guarantee the constitutional rights of all regardless of one’s sex, went to the states for ratification. That same year, Title IX prohibited federally funded educational institutions from discriminating against students based on sex, opening viable school sports to young girls.

As recently as 2009, the issue of equal pay for equal work was addressed when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that restored protection against pay discrimination.

Even today, American women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

The goal of economic parity remains a challenge and focusing on increasing the number of women-owned businesses in our state and the country is a powerful tool toward achieving that goal.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 402,000 women-owned businesses were recorded in 1972; 46 years later that number increased 31 times over with a total of 12.3 million businesses owned by women. Washington accounts for 209,400 of those in 2018.

Yet, even with such growth, in 2016 women received just over 2% of investor and venture capital (VC) funding, and women-led businesses comprised only 4.9 percent of VC deals.

Why do we continue to publish Women in Business? Clearly, much work remains. Moreover, if we’re not diligent, we will lose the ground we’ve gained.

Author’s note: It has been a long, disappointing, and frustrating five years since this was written. In June 2022, the Supreme Court overruled Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization stating that the substantive right to abortion was not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history or tradition,” nor considered a right. As a result, 12 states are currently enforcing a near-total ban on abortion with very limited exceptions. In some states, Florida for example, medical staff is moving out of state because of both the ambiguity of some enforcement rulings and the impact a misunderstanding could have on their medical practice and license. And, in a few states, hospitals with prenatal care and birthing capabilities are shuttering, forcing many women to have to drive hours for pregnancy medical care.

And while the pay gap hasn’t fared much better for women in general, there does seem to be an improvement for younger women. According to the PEW Research Center, in 2022, women ages 25 to 34 earned an average of 92 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned – an 8-cent gap. By comparison, the gender pay gap among female workers of all ages that year was 18 cents. And reliable child care remains a steep financial burden for many families.

Instead of celebrating increased positive strides on the status of American women in 2023, the sands continue to shift, and ground continues to be lost.

Clearly, the fight continues.