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Has e-commerce shattered the glass ceiling for women in business?

E-commerce · 5 min read

Has e-commerce shattered the glass ceiling?

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by digging deep into the world of e-commerce and exploring whether it creates more opportunities for women to excel. 

Have new ideas and working opportunities shaken up outdated business practices? E-commerce is full of prominent and talented women and we're investigating how they got to where they are and to what extent things have evolved. 

As consumers, women have an enormous impact on the economy. In fact, women drive 70-80% of consumer purchasing (Forbes). Also, businesses with a heavier female presence are more profitable, according to The Peterson Institute. However, only 4.2% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

But, are things any different on the management side of online shopping? Well, if you Google ‘e-commerce CEOs’, 11 pictures flash up, only one is woman (Suchi Mukherjee).

It’s not a great state of affairs, but let's take a look at the wider picture and explore some trends to see if changes are happening.

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Women CEOs are female e-commerce role models

Rebecca Minkoff co-founded a global fashion brand, starting off her journey as an 18-year old with big dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Her company has now generated over US$100m in sales, and she’s a member of the New York State Council on Women and Girls. She’s passionate about empowering women and has a 789,000 strong army on Instagram. 

Dubbed ‘the UK’s number one beauty box’, Birchbox found a real gap in the market. People often get frustrated endlessly searching for products themselves and spending far too much time sampling new products. So they came up with a solution that lets consumers try different products without breaking the bank. The company’s founders, Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna met at Harvard and have managed to lure one million subscribers to the site, raising US$80m in venture capital since 2010. 

Conquer the world from the comfort of your house

The hugely successful and uber-popular Not On The High Street was founded by Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker. The company concept was first dreamed up at a kitchen table way back in 2006. Fast forward 12 years, and the business has an annual growth of 150% and sales are worth £100m.

The key takeaway from these businesses is that women are key to the changing nature of how we shop. Minkoff is a brand in herself and a voice for strong women. Birchbox helped initiate the subscription box model and Not On The High Street gives women a highly accessible way to sell products via their online store. Many women are going from selling products in their spare time as a side venture, to turning the business into a nine-to-five job. That’s what happened to Danielle Atkins when she started her swimwear brand Kulani Kinis, which is now on-track to hit AU$1.5m-2m in annual revenue by June 2018.

Despite these success stories, there are still big changes to be made at the top of businesses and amongst those who are deemed to be market thought leaders. When Big Commerce announced their list of ‘The 19 Most Innovative E-commerce Brands of 2018’, the nine-strong judging panel was all made up of men, which given an increasingly diverse marketplace, does not reflect these wider market changes. Differing attitudes to men and women in some sections of the market seem to persist as well. A particularly interesting story comes from the female founders of Witchsy, who after having not being taken seriously, invented a male co-worker.

"It would take me days to get a response, but ‘Keith’ could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else."

With this fictitious change, they quickly sold US$200k in merchandise. 

But despite stories like this, it appears e-commerce really is updating the traditional structures that often hold women back. There’s also a broad avenue opening up for female-skewed shopping, run by women for women. Which leads us to our original question ...

Has e-commerce made it easier for business women? 

It certainly seems as though the e-commerce world is well suited to female entrepreneurs because it allows them the flexibility to balance their lives around work. The industry has become more accessible, with women running businesses from home or on-the-go. It’s also now far easier to build a business outside of a normal job and sell creative goods, for instance, via sites like Etsy. 

An e-commerce business can seem to be a much larger concern, when really it’s just run by one person. For instance, anyone selling online can grow their brand fast, thanks to platforms like Facebook Marketplace. Using a brand like DHL Express to deliver your goods is a sure way to look like a big operator.

Social shopping will have a massive impact in 2018 according to Jason Stokes, founder and CEO of Shopify Expert Eastside Co. This is an area where women tend to excel, because social suits female shopping habits. 

"Women are socially influenced browsers, and when they shop, they enjoy sifting through lifestyle-focused editorial content."

Marketing Dive

Community-led brands are also on the rise. Brands that are grown and built on social media are often backed up by an army of loyal fans. 

If Etsy is anything to go by, then things are definitely improving for women in the e-commerce sphere. The user base is 86% female and around 30% of sellers say their Etsy stores are their sole source of income.

Are you ready to join the women's business network?

There’s still a long way to go for women in business, but increasing numbers of female entrepreneurs are flourishing in e-commerce. From 2010 to 2015, the number of self-employed women in online retail has risen by 28%. 

A study by eBay using UK government data had some encouraging findings. The number of British female entrepreneurs operating e-commerce businesses has risen by 28% over the past five years and is growing faster in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. 

There’s also been a rise in France (17%) and Italy (5%). The USA, Australia and Canada rank highly as good destinations to be a female entrepreneur. It’s important to note there are still gender gaps in lots of countries, but overall trends are positive. 

The whole world stands to benefit from women taking a leading role. Increasing female participation in the business sector to 10% would take the overall economic contribution of women-led SMEs to more than £180bn by 2025. It’s an inspiring statistic which shows change that will benefit all in the longer run is on the horizon. It will also take a change in attitudes to women from the largely male-dominated business elite as well as consumers though, to ensure these changes are as far reaching as possible. 

Next Steps

Take a look at our handy resources for women starting an online business.

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"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is mere tenacity."

Amelia Earhart, Pilot


Serious about taking your brand global?

Reach 220 territories across the world

  • Easy Shipping
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