Women’s voice in business is getting louder

Yolanda Vega – founder and CEO of AWCCI (image courtesy AWCCI)

Spurred on by the absence of female leaders in Australia’s business chambers of commerce, Yolanda Vega set out almost three years ago to establish an organisation to represent women’s business interests. It took considerable determination – and rewriting the constitution to exclude the word ‘women’ – before the Australian Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry (AWCCI) was launched on International Women’s Day 2011 (8 March). A year later it has a growing membership and, having just released first-time research into female business owners and entrepreneurs, is giving women a serious voice in the business world.

‘Women are the fastest growing community in the commercial sector,’ Yolanda explains, ‘[but] the majority are corporate refugees. The AWCCI represents women business owners around the county to ensure they have a voice at the tables where the decisions are being made. Women business owners must be treated as equals in the commercial sector and be allowed to have an input into the decisions that affect our businesses, our communities and our future if we are to survive as a nation.’

Recent labour force data shows that women account for a third of the country’s business employers and almost 40 per cent of its solo business operators – approximately 82,000 female business employers and 360,000 solo operators compared to 170,000 male employers and 603,000 solo operators. Statistics also reveal that while the number of female employers has reduced in line with males over the last decade (falling 21% and 19% respectively), the number of women operating solo businesses has grown considerably more than men. There are now 28 per cent more female solo operators than in 2002, while men’s rates have dropped one per cent*. Over the 12 months from February 2011 women’s solo businesses grew five per cent while men’s actually fell seven per cent**.

Business owners summary

Changing business ownership: Employers & solo operators from February 1985 to February 2012 (based on ABS labour force data) – click image to enlarge

Gender imbalance in business chambers

Given this growth it is not surprising the idea of a dedicated women’s chamber of commerce was conceived, especially in light of the imbalance Yolanda sees in the current business environment where over 700,000 women run businesses (around 40 per cent of all business owners). In particular she points to the disparity in the organisations that claim to represent business interests – the national, state and territory chambers of commerce. They have only one woman leader representing the interests of female business owners and only thirteen (or 17%) of the 78 board members are women.

‘At the top of the ladder, the [Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI)] has an all male board purporting to be Australia’s largest and most representative business association. In the 21st century women are still being excluded and ignored. This is one of the last male bastions, which can no longer be tolerated.’

The same zero-women scenario of the eleven-member ACCI board exists in the Western Australian and Queensland chambers of commerce (which have 9 and 7 board members respectively). The chambers of South Australia (9 members), Tasmania (8), the two territories (ACT, 9 and NT, 7) and Victoria (8) have two women on their boards, and New South Wales has three (of 10).

Only one organisation, the Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce has a female leading its board  – Julie Ross became President in October 2011. There are no other women Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) or Chairs of the other six state and territory organisations.

Not surprisingly the five-member board of the not-for-profit AWCCI is all female, as are the nine members of the organisation’s Advisory Committee, which includes Professor Marian Baird, Ita Buttrose, Debra Hutton and Wendy McCarthy.

Yolanda has long been involved in business organisations. Over two decades she has worked for not-for-profit organisations and companies such as Nokia, Siemens and News Limited. She is a former CEO of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Australia, founding editor of Wealth Creator Magazine and in 2009 she went to the International Women’s Forum World Conference as Australia’s ‘Young Leader’. She also founded a charitable organisation – Peacebeliever – to promote peace through ‘the universal language of song’. Revealing the same determination she showed getting AWCCI off the ground, she secured permission from John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono to re-record and add-to his song ‘Give Peace a Chance’ – the first time anyone had done so.

AWCCI’s continuing success

The birth of the AWCCI on 8 March 2011 was the end of a long gestation period for Yolanda. It took almost 18 months to set up the organisation, which required Federal Government approval to use the words ‘Chamber of Commerce’. After the first application was rejected, the constitution was rewritten to exclude the word ‘women’ (except in the company name) and it was eventually approved. The chamber now has a growing weekly membership and a ‘long list’ of alliances with groups that represent women across several industries and in all states and territories.

She proudly reports there have been no failures over AWCCI’s inaugural year, just several successes. Already this year it has been touring regional Australia with workshops on business continuity planning to help operators thrive and survive through adversity. Sessions run in four states (NSW, VIC, QLD and NT) were all booked out.

In September 2011 AWCCI represented Australia at the first Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women’s Economic Summit, chaired by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in San Francisco.

‘At that Summit all APEC economies, from developed and developing countries, agreed that there is a direct correlation between the gender gap and economic productivity – the lower the gap, the higher the economic productivity. 

The big win was that a Declaration was signed, which has very specific goals, and Australia is now committed to giving women access to capital so that female entrepreneurs can turn their ideas into the small and medium enterprises that are the source of so much growth and job creation.’

The Declaration also committed to the goals of providing women with access to markets, capacity and skills building, and women’s leadership. Improving the collection of sex-disaggregated data was another aim and Yolanda says AWCCI achieved this recently through a national research project to learn about women business owners. Launched in September 2011, the online survey garnered almost 3000 responses from women who own and operate their own businesses. The results have just been released in a report and will help AWCCI advocate for policies and programs to assist Australian women business owners.

While AWCCI has already had discussions with several state and territory ministers and the federal and shadow ministers about programs and policy, the high rotation of Federal Government ministers over recent times has slowed progress in that key area.

‘One of our challenges is that as soon as we establish a rapport with a Federal Minister they are replaced … Getting things accomplished at this level when ministers come and go this quickly is very challenging. However we have placed several issues on the table including childcare [and] superannuation and discussed ways to ensure women are able to procure more Federal Government grants in order to grow their businesses.’

As to the next twelve months and beyond, Yolanda says AWCCI will continue on its mission to give women business owners and entrepreneurs a ‘voice’ and to help make them more independent and their businesses more profitable.

‘Our vision is to promote the importance and value-add of women-owned firms to the economy [and] support the development and growth through research, education and advocacy. The results are to advocate adequately to ensure that all women have an equal platform in the business sector for the benefit of all Australians.’

‘Today more women than ever before are starting their own business. It is therefore logical, viable and economically sensible to invest in female entrepreneurs to ensure our economy grows and we are able to survive within our increasingly competitive global economy.’

For more information, go to the AWCCI website.

* Based on Feb 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Data – 2002 figures showing 104,000 female and 209,000 male employers, and 282,000 female and 611,000 male solo operators

** Based on Feb 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force Data – 2011 figures showing and 342,000 female and 651,000 male solo operators.