Becoming The Boss?

This Sunday, I opened up my New York Times, and was excited when I spied the headline “Becoming the Boss,” which appeared to be an article about women entrepreneurs starting their own businesses.

The article opened by reporting that, in New York City, more than a half million businesses are owned by women, and these businesses employ 533,437 people. The article quoted a study by the Center for Women’s Business Research which found that these businesses have brought in $93 million so far in 2008.

I read on, hoping to find some inspiring stories about women who had branched out to start their own financial services firms, law firms, and businesses in growing sectors like energy, technology, communications and health care. I was hoping to learn a thing or two about the new female movers and shakers running companies in New York City.

However, upon closer inspection, I realized that most of the “successful women business leaders” described in this article clearly fell into the dreaded “pink ghetto” of decidedly women’s work. They were from industries that are universally acknowledged to be the province of women, and the kind of jobs that high achieving men would more than willingly cede entirely to the other gender.

For example, one woman business owner left a successful career in fashion to open a wedding dress design business which she operates out of her garage. The NYT lauded this career choice as a chance for this business leader to have greater autonomy, flexible working hours and a chance to profit from ideas that corporate bosses overlook. The article glibly concluded, “She enjoys being up to her elbows in duchess satin, silk gazar or chiffon, on her own terms, even though her business is not yet profitable.”

The next female business leader profiled was the inventor of the Wubbanub, a pacifier with a small stuffed animal attached to it. The inventor, Carla Schneider, works out of her home, and has now sold enough Wubbanubs to turn a modest profit and generate 6 figures in annual sales. A description of more child-centric business ideas followed, applauding the creative efforts of these “mompreneurs,” in developing and marketing a wide variety of baby-oriented products and services.

Midway through this article, I began to have a sense of déjà vu. I recalled coming home from work late last year, collapsing onto my couch, and flipping on the late night rebroadcast of Oprah at 1:00 am. (Yes, for all of us working women, Oprah has not forgotten us. No need to even Tivo). On this particular episode, the woman who had founded Jibbitz was featured. Jibbitz, for those of you not in the know, are small plastic charms that are designed to fit into the holes in the top of the comfortable but hideous plastic slippers known as Crocs. Apparently, she has made millions off of this brainchild. Again, she was lauded as an example of a woman “having it all” – running her own successful company, spending time with her family and raising her small children.

The feeling I had was, really? This is a female business role model in 2008? Maybe I’m just jealous, who knows? But something about lauding these women business owners as successful entrepreneurs who have it all seemed a wee bit patronizing and benignly sexist for the 21st century. The idea of both the NYT article and the Oprah program was, “look how great these women are at doing cute little woman things, and even making money at it!”

Indeed, the empowering-sounding, a website for aspiring female entrepreneurs, answers the question “What kind of business should I start?” with this suggestion to focus on existing hobbies, including “crafts, candles, baskets, baking and sewing.” Is this the message that we want to send to our daughters about what it means to be a woman and own a business? Not that there is anything wrong with baking cookies, but in an era when a woman has credibly run for president, I would like to think that they can aim higher.

Think its impressive that these women have been able to balance career and family and wish you had thought of Jibbitz? Well, ask yourself this question. Would an article in the New York Times entitled “Becoming the Boss,” have featured such quaint cottage businesses if they were run by men? I don’t think so.

Let’s even dig a little deeper. There is certainly a pervasive media bias in the way in which women doing arts and crafts at home are applauded as the next generation of female entrepreneurs, while male entrepreneurship conjures up the image of the smiling founders of Google, Craigslist and Facebook, for starters. That bias is also reflective of the views of most people in society. I’m sure the Wubbanub lady’s husband was very proud that his wife decided to do something productive and useful with her time, and is doubly pleased that she’s making money doing it. But, how many of us honestly would find it acceptable if our boyfriends or husbands decided to quit their jobs, stay home, and glue silicon to tiny stuffed animals in our basements? That’s what I thought.

Though this article may seem to take the tone of putting down these women entrepreneurs, that’s not how I intend it. The small businesses founded by these and other women clearly make a valuable contribution to the marketplace, or they would not be profitable. And they certainly have enabled these women to continue to work and bring in income to help their families while spending more time with their children. Just like being a stay-at-home mom, this is a career choice that works for some women, and there is nothing wrong with that.

As an attorney who once tried to use a glue gun with disastrous results and since then has steered pretty far away from craft projects; it terrifies me that society is sending a message that, once I have children, this is the kind of “being my own boss” that I can hope to aspire to. If so, my post-baby career prospects are looking a bit grim. I know there are women entrepreneurs founding and running profitable companies in a variety of industries that are not explicitly child oriented. I’d like to hear more about them.