This year’s International Women’s Day has arrived with a renewed sense of urgency.
The pandemic created barriers for women facing domestic violence to access support, caused more young women to drop out of university than their male counterparts, left more women unemployed and placed a heavier burden of unpaid domestic labour largely on women.
Women today still earn less than men in industries dominated by women. In the health care and social assistance sector, for example, women make up almost 78% of the workforce but earn 21.8% less than men, according to this federal government report.
The theme selected by UN Women for IWD 2021 is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, and so SmartCompany has chosen to showcase the efforts of nine female entrepreneurs whose work is having a meaningful impact on women’s lives.
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Sarah Liu, The Dream Collective
As founder and managing director of the global diversity and inclusion consultancy The Dream Collective, Sarah Liu got down to work when the pandemic struck.
“In Australia, women were hit harder with the mass redundancies that resulted from COVID-19,” Liu tells SmartCompany.
In response, The Dream Collective developed a free, online program, ShePivots, that aimed to upskill COVID-affected women to prepare them for career transitions, and connect them to job opportunities.
“ShePivots has seen almost 3,000 women enrol and benefit from the program, feeling equipped to re-enter the workforce,” Liu says.
Perina Drummond, Jira Models
Headed up by founder Perina Drummond, the First Nations talent agency Jira Models is today honouring all the strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women leaders who continue to be role models for its community.
“We also celebrate all our female talents that we have in our agency that continue to be role models for our people around our country,” she says.
Drummond says between the pandemic and having a child in her hometown of Thursday Island last year, she was forced to take time out from her Melbourne-based business.
But, it did come with a silver lining.
“I’ve learnt the importance of connecting with communities around the country, and how saturated we are with so many great opportunities to grow locally and nationally,” she says.
Christina Hobbs, Verve Super
Ethical women’s super fund Verve Super was founded in 2018, and co-founder and chief executive Christina Hobbs knows all to well that the pandemic has not helped close the super gap between women and men.
For Hobbs, the impact of the pandemic has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, flexibility at work has made life easier for some working women. On the other hand, the pandemic took a disproportionate economic toll on women.
“Research shows women who accessed their super will find it more challenging to rebuild than men,” Hobbs tells SmartCompany.
Hobbs says it’s a reminder that Verve Super has an obligation to advocate to change the systems that contribute to the 35% super gap between men and women.
“International Women’s Day for us has never been about seeing women rise through an unfair system, it has always been about changing the system so that people of all genders can experience equality and rise together.”
Bronwyn Bate, Mettle Gifts
Mettle Gifts founder Bronwyn Bate runs a social enterprise that employs survivors of domestic and family violence by selling gift boxes online. This International Women’s Day, Bate says she’s celebrating her employees’ courage.
“We celebrate the fact that, despite their hardship, they somehow retain an optimistic view of the world,” Bate says.
During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders made it harder for women experiencing domestic violence to safely connect with services, Bate says.
“This highlighted a clear gap in the emergency evacuation process, and it’s something that we’re now working closely with service providers and ride-share services to try and reform.”
Cortina McCurry, Caia
Caia co-founder and chief Cortina McCurry says COVID-19 has given women confidence to be more vocal with their employers about their needs and constraints.
“In many cases, they haven’t had a choice. It has also helped to change perceptions about working from home and the reality of what it takes to truly integrate work and life,” she says.
Founded in 2019, Caia is a medtech that gives women easy access to healthcare practitioners through video consultations.
McCurry says that even though the pandemic has proven telehealth works, it has also revealed the limitations of the virtual health model.
“We are looking at opportunities to better respond to the new reality, as opposed to trying to force fit a model from the past into the current environment,” she says.
“This International Women’s Day we’re celebrating the resilience of women and families everywhere and the power of community.”
Ally Watson, Code Like A Girl
Code Like A Girl founder Ally Watson, who devotes her time to teaching young women to code, says the pandemic only highlighted the gender gap further.
“This pandemic has turned cracks into chasms, making it all-to-clear that the gendered division of our workforce is leaving our women behind,” she says.
With demand for technologists seeing huge growth, Watson says it is the perfect time to reskill the women with in-demand digital skills.
In Victoria last year, Code Like a Girl rolled out an online coding course aimed at closing the gender gap in IT education.
Since August, over 110 students have participated.
“Our courses are delivered 100% online which means we’ve been able to attract a diverse range of women across Australia nationally,” she says.
Jane Marx, The Beautiful Bunch
Last year, Jane Marx managed the feat of launching a business during Melbourne’s prolonged lockdown.
The founder of the social enterprise Merchant Road Events, which employees women from refugee backgrounds, was unable to continue operating under public health restrictions. As a result, Marx established the florist The Beautiful Bunch.
“Launching The Beautiful Bunch enabled us to continue to generate an income and importantly, to employ young women from refugee backgrounds who need this opportunity now more than ever,” she says.
This International Women’s Day Marx is celebrating the recent success of her newly established enterprise.
“We were able to actually experience growth last year, and lay the groundwork for an expansion of our training program,” she says.
Winitha Bonney, diversity consultant and founder of Amina of Zaria
For business mentor and entrepreneur Winitha Bonney, the shift to remote work has an upside for women from diverse backgrounds.
“For women of colour, working remotely has enabled those that have little to no support be able to manage caring duties with work,” she says
As part of her mentoring work, Bonney has spent this year helping businesses create inclusive cultures while working remotely.
This International Women’s Day, Bonney says she is honouring “the greatness that is within each person and woman of colour”.
George McEncroe, Shebah
Since its outset, the women-only Australian ride-sharing platform Shebah has aimed to make travelling and working safer for women.
The startup’s founder George McEncroe says while the pandemic has not changed Sheba’s core mission, it has changed the way it supports and onboards women drivers.
“We offer flexible working arrangements for drivers, who take home an industry high of 85% of every fare, and want to make sure women know driving for Shebah is a safe option to earn or supplement their income,” McEncroe says.