Budget 2021: What’s in it for women entrepreneurs? Not much

:Different co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan. Source: supplied.

The federal budget this year was touted as one that was going to address the concerns of the women in Australia, and to a point, it did.

However, after last year’s offering was deemed “woefully inadequate” for women heading up small businesses and startups, this year’s was a tad more supportive… but not by much.

The women’s economic security package included $38.3 million over five years to increase grant funding through the Women’s Leadership and Development Program, which offers grants to projects seeking to improve economic outcomes for women.

There was also $600,000 over three years for the women in STEM ambassador for developing an evaluation toolkit to build on planning and reporting tools when evaluating gender equity initiatives in the sector.

Although, this is coming out of existing resources of the department of industry and science.

There were also a range of measures intended to help women get back into the workforce and to upskill and reskill, including $42.4 million over seven years for women in STEM scholarships and $2.6 million to expand the ‘mid-career checkpoint program’ to Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Beyond that, it comes down to childcare — which is still being incessantly touted as a women’s, not a families’ issue.

The budget pledged $1.7 billion over five years to increase the child care subsidy rate by 30 percentage points for second and subsequent children, up to a maximum of 95%.

The annual cap of $10,560 in child care subsidies will also be scrapped, with both changes coming into effect in July 2022.

In last year’s October budget, touted as the one that would see Australia emerge from the COVID-19 recession, there was criticism around the lack of action on childcare.

At the time, Dr Meraiah Foley, deputy director of the women and work research group at the University of Sydney Business School, told SmartCompany that costly childcare and a lack of flexibility in ‘traditional’ roles often becomes a ‘push factor’, driving women out of the workforce and leading them to launch their own businesses for lack of other options.

Obviously that’s not ideal either. We want women and other marginalised groups to start businesses for the right reasons — because they have great ideas and the vision and ambition to make them happen.

But when there’s little support for the women that do strike out on their own, it becomes a double-whammy.

Barriers to entry, and no welcome once you’re in

There’s also a purveying assumption that the lack of women entrepreneurs and women in tech is a pipeline problem.

According to Mina Radhakrishnan, co-founder of tech-enabled property management agency :Different, women actually tend to leave the tech industry because “it can be a toxic environment”.

That’s true for women working in tech organisations, where there are pay gaps [and] a lack of advancement opportunities. Often, that’s due to a lack of diverse leadership, Radhakrishnan notes.

But women founders also face discrimination when seeking funding, are taken less seriously as ‘real’ entrepreneurs, or are expected to prove their worth where their male counterparts may not.

The tech ecosystem is not always welcoming to women, particularly women of colour, those who identify as LGBTQAI+ or have a disability, and those that are mothers.

We know successful tech companies boost the startup ecosystem; many a former Atlassian employee has struck out on their own, and founders such as Larry Diamond and Rob Phillpott are now active angel investors.

If the majority of those former employees are of one particular demographic, we get nowhere.

So, there is an argument that boosting women participation in tech could ultimately lead to more women-led businesses.

And we could go some way towards addressing this through more participation of women, and schemes like the funding for STEM scholarships.

But that is just $6 million, Radhakrishnan notes. Per year for this is “a marginal commitment to a burgeoning issue”.

If the government is serious about reducing barriers to women entrepreneurs, and in tech more generally, the first step is to “stop perpetuating the myth that lack of diversity in tech is a pipeline problem”, she says.

She would have liked to see rewards for businesses that hire diversely and create supportive environments for underrepresented people on their teams, plus requirements for listed corporations to publish they leadership and salary statistics, including gender and racial pay comparisons.

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