Aussie women are ditching the 9 to 5, but running a business is a hard way to make a living

Dolly Parton 9 to 5

Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda starred in 9 TO 5. Source: Mary Evans Picture Library

As we mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate that more than ever before, women are running their own enterprises. We’re still channelling the chutzpah of Dolly, Lily and Jane, but we’ve left the 9 to 5 behind.

It’s no secret that for many women, the 9-5 is as outdated as Frank Hart’s behaviour towards his secretary. The structure of working 9-5 doesn’t take into consideration caring for children or parents, drop off and pick up times, and many 9-5 operations policies are still unrepresentative of their staff make-up. It also doesn’t take into consideration women wanting to find joy outside of work, but inside 9-5 hours.

I saw an internal document this week, that was sent and captioned by the general manager of the organisation, of seven middle-aged men sitting around a lunch table with the caption: “great planning session today, the future looks bright”. 

A screenshot of the post went around a group of girlfriend’s WhatsApp group because it was a bright, hard-to-ignore message, but it wasn’t the shining example of organisational representation it should have been.

The brightness was the flames of fury coming from every woman who worked in the organisation, feeling neglected and unrepresented. No wonder women are ready to leave to see their worth recognised, and if it won’t happen within an organisation, they’re making it happen for themselves.

Dreams of being your own boss coming true

The rise of e-commerce, access to self web publishing and online courses means it is easier than ever to start and run an online business, a business from home or one in a shared workspace. Equality and access seem like IWD dreams do come true. 

For me, as much as I was fulfilled by and passionate about my work, and as much as my board tried to make it work, after I had my first child, my work didn’t work for our family. I felt very strongly I wanted to be able to control my schedule and have it be as flexible as I was able to, but I still wanted to do meaningful work.

So from our spare bedroom, I co-founded a tech startup, I run an e-commerce business with an active social media presence, I record a podcast and I consult clients on crisis and reputation management.

And when I say the spare bedroom, it’s also the kitchen table and at the supermarket. With access to information, technology and logistical software on our phones, many of us can be anywhere and able to work. 

For many women, this access is creating a happier environment to be creative, follow dreams and long-held ambitions. It gives us autonomy over our schedules and the opportunity to build a business, product or service, while doing other things that bring them fulfilment, and dare I say, happiness. It means that now I have a child in prep, I can be sure I’m there for his pick up and drop off — and have a coffee with the other parents. This may not be important to everyone but is to our family. I can take my mum to her doctor’s appointment, and then out for a lovely long lunch. I can go rollerskating for an hour after drop off, and then follow it up with a client call.

In our example, my partner and I sat down and worked out what sort of life we wanted for our family. It involved the division of responsibilities, knowing that we could both do work that we loved and fulfilled us, based on equality and shared ambitions. It also means we can each spend equal time parenting (as I sit at my desk now my husband is cleaning up toys with a three-year-old). We designed the working “week” we want, but it does mean work, financial sacrifice and doing some sort of work every single day. 

It is important to remember the work still has to get done, and it still takes teamwork. For women to leave the 9-5 they still need support networks to be able to get into the work when and where they can. It means that after books and bedtime I am straight at the desk, on a zoom with my co-founders. It means my husband goes to the warehouse (our garage where our car should be) and packs orders. We’re exhausted, but with creative, financial and scheduling autonomy.

The flipside of the IWD dream

Like any dream, this IWD dream has some hard realities. There is a dark underbelly to this ‘you can control your schedule, leave the grind, bring wealth to your family’.

I see it on almost every new mum and parenting forum I am on, and it is targeting women, especially mothers, to control their destinies through network marketing or multi-level marketing schemes. The evidence is that these unregulated schemes are in the business of developing marketing and language that preys on women, and more often than not, leaves them with a debt of money or surplus product.

The almost omnipresent social media female ‘entrepreneur’ would have you believe in overnight success, unicorn business within a year and ‘six-figure salaries’ all day, every day. 

Not only are many of these women offering courses that will show you how for multiple thousands, they’re setting dangerous expectations for us all. And many are setting other women up to fail with unrealistic expectations of what it takes to run a business. 

I think we need to make sure as women entrepreneurs we are telling the truth of working for ourselves. Homes aren’t always clean (they’re never really clean), it takes a lot of work and research to build a good product-based business or a good list of clients, invoices and tax have to be done, and not everyone has the wherewithal to have the profile of a reality tv star to boost social media engagement.

It isn’t all long lunches; sometimes it is scrambling to find a babysitter to do a client call, or a naked three-year-old wandering in the back of a telecall to a client in Italy, when you deliberately scheduled the call hoping everyone would be asleep.

Women running businesses need to be supported or risk feeling isolated. They need to join networking groups of real-life women to be able to share, have a sense of comradery and access sounding boards. Women also need to be promoted and mentioned in circles of networks, referred and introduced. When going out by themselves, women need to be supported by their champions more than ever.

At the same time, we need the services to support these online businesses. Recent research from Buy From the Bush shows that access to reliable technology still is a barrier to doing business in regional Australia where so much creativity and ambition is bred. Women in the regions are running online businesses with access to internet that is patchy at best.

For us, we used our household savings to start our manufacturing business, and almost three years later the business pays bills, but nowhere near what a corporate salary would. Our tech startup would significantly benefit from an investor boost, but as SmartCompany will attest, venture capital is still hard to come by as a woman.

There are now more women in their own enterprise than ever, but there are still significant barriers and the IWD dream feels like it needs more support to become a reality. I do think Dolly, Lilly and Jane are proud of us all though.

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