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Mumpreneur’s the word

The term ‘mumprenuer’ is trending, but research suggests it may have a dark side.

Dr Meraiah Foley from the University of Sydney Business School surveyed 60 mothers who run their own businesses and found that, for the majority, being self-employed wasn’t a willing choice.

Discontent’s a driver

Her research findings, Mothers in Company, cited a lack of childcare affordability and suitability, and inhospitable working environments, as the main causes for mothers going it alone professionally. To illustrate childcare issues as a mumpreneur motive, Foley related one study participant’s anecdote: “She had two children and lived in a busy urban area. She couldn’t find childcare for both kids on the same day at the same time. In her words, staying in her regular job ‘seemed impossible’.”

A majority of study participants also found their work milieu forced them out of regular employment. Inflexible schedules, substandard part-time positions, and a sense that they were being discriminated against for their part-time status were the leading factors. The fact that 10 per cent of participants were laid off whilst pregnant or on maternity leave underscores this point.

Alongside these undesirable reasons for switching to freelancing, participants reported numerous negative effects associated with taking that step, including social and professional isolation, a sense of aimlessness, and reduced income. Also, almost two-thirds did not make superannuation contributions.

Foley relayed the story of one participant, who left a corporate job to start her own family day care centre. The woman described superannuation, or rather a lack thereof, as “a little black cloud” that constantly shadowed her.

The upside

Foley’s findings didn’t entirely indicate doom and career gloom: they also revealed mothers enjoyed greater flexibility in self-employment. “The flexibility is absolutely massive,” Natalie Goldman, head of strategy and partnerships at Women as Entrepreneurs, surmised. “You have the opportunity to go to your children’s swimming carnivals if needed, or turn up to look after a parent who needs care, or whatever needs to be done.”

As for the solitary aspect of entrepreneurship, Goldman admitted this was often inevitable, especially amongst women, who “tend not to have co-founders”, yet she suggested that online communities have sprung up in response to this, Facebook being a prominent medium in this regard.

And whilst Goldman acknowledged start-up finances can be shaky, she also described the financial security and independence that come from starting something yourself: “The ability to create and make a mark of your own is also incredibly invigorating, because for a lot of women who become mothers, one of the things that can happen … is that they lose a sense of self. They become a mother and that becomes their identity.”

Aside from mumpreneurs specifically, Angela Priestley, founding editor of Women’s Agenda, had some positive, big-picture pronouncements about female entrepreneurs. In a speech at the Australia Post Tall Poppies Summit in April, she said, “We’re living in the equal second-best country in the world to be a female entrepreneur, and here’s the very good news: 57 per cent of [Australian female entrepreneurs] are ‘pleased or delighted with the quality’ of [their] lives.”

These generalisations appear to have grounding in reality. Goldman said in her experience most mumpreneurs take this career plunge out of choice, though she maintained there’s additional pressure on women that makes the decision a loaded one. “The pressure has mounted on women to be amazing business owners, amazing mothers, amazing parents, amazing carers for children and carers to their ageing parents … So we’re seeing a lot of mental health and depression issues.”

Added to this is Foley’s above-mentioned, documented issue that mothers have with inflexible workplaces. So, perhaps the ‘choice’ element of mumpreneurships isn’t clear-cut. Speaking of workplace flexibility, she said “although the state of play has improved, it’s still not ideal.”

What’s in a name?

Further to the adverse, causal mumpreneur factors, could the label itself be damaging? Goldman took issue with the term mumpreneur. “It almost belittles the women who do it,” she said. She believes it implies these women aren’t serious about their businesses, simply because they’re mothers. “I think it kind of limits women … The women I work with don’t define themselves as mumpreneurs, even though they are mothers,” she reasoned. Further dispelling the notion that all mumpreneurs are nothing more than glorified hobbyists, Foley said the majority of her participants “were employed on a freelance or contractual basis, doing similar work to what they did before”. That being said, most were secondary income earners. This means “they had the luxury of falling back on someone else’s income, [which] took some of the risk factor out of setting up a business”.

This means that when it comes to reluctant, self-reliant mumpreneurs, the dark side seems that much darker.

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