Last week I attended the 15th Annual Rural Entrepreneurship Conference hosted by Newcastle University. One of the opening plenary speakers was Professor Sally Shortall from Newcastle University who presented her work on ‘Rural Entrepreneurship and Women’. Sally had spent a year interviewing women working into rural business in Scotland, and exploring the inequalities and changing statuses within particular professions, such as farming.
Women within the farming industry are typically met with barriers as the inheritance and transfer of farms is still traditionally between male members of families, and very few women are on boards and committees. However, women farmers who took part in interviews with Sally were often very highly motivated andeducated, and were making informed choices to enter the farming industry, despite of these barriers. The women did not feel restricted, and were open to take part in farming, knowing that they might never own their own farm but instead making this lifestyle choice. Within other rural sectors, women Sally interviewed tended to be more interested in starting small businesses rather than gaining high profits or status. The types of businesses that were being set up were also more likely to fill some kind of social need. But, what Sally emphasised was this was NOT because of their feelings of inequality, lack of education or fear of failure, with one of her respondents stating:-
‘It’s not so much a glass ceiling, but a sticky floor’
One of those ‘sticky’ aspects highlighted was childcare, with a motivation for women to set up their own businesses in rural Scotland to provide flexible working patterns and support networks. This is something that resonated with my own project, Growth at the Edge, and the women I have spoken to in areas I have visited over the past 6 months. Spending time with remote and rural communities has shown me that job opportunities are sparse and generally low paid, and markets tend to be particularly small. Moreover, job markets, educational facilities and public services tend to be located in larger towns and cities, often a couple of hours away (or on the mainland if living on an island), further adding to the difficulties of access to economic and social opportunity. This is where women in particular have been using innovative methods to tackle such inequalities.
In the Seaboard Villages, on the Fearn Peninsula, local oil and gas industries are in decline, and males within families are commonly seeking work offshore and abroad, therefore women predominantly have sole responsibility for childcare. In response, women have started their own local parent & toddler groups at the Seaboard Hall social enterprise as a place to bring their children without having to travel to the nearest large town. This has allowed young females to socialise, gain childcare and health advice, and make informal supportive networks in a very sparsely populated area. Similarly, in South Uist, a social enterprise called Cothrom was set up by a group of young mothers who were interested in creating training and education opportunities to fit with their childcare needs. Such opportunities simply did not exist on their sparsely populated island. What began in 1992 as a small group of mothers running a local sewing class has grown into large community development facility offering education and training across the islands, with its very own on-site nursery. This means that women are able to study for qualifications and even gain work experience whilst their children attend nursery in the very same building.
Of course, Sally’s work is only representative of the views of those who were interviewed who were already engaging in rural business and farming. Nevertheless, moving forward, there is a need to understand existing barriers and motivations and the potential for social enterprise activity to make the floor a little less ‘sticky’.