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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 07:58 GMT 08:58 UK
Business prizes and the gender divide
By Myles Neligan
BBC News Online business reporter

This week, London's plush Cafe Royal will host the inaugural Women Mean Business awards, a new ceremony designed to celebrate the achievements of Britain's female entrepreneurs.

Sponsored by T-Online, backed by trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt, and with a top prize of 10,000, the Women Mean Business awards promise to be a suitably glamorous occasion.

It was a major confidence boost to be nominated
Lucy Sage, entrepreneur
The 10 finalists, who have founded successful businesses ranging from a fruit juice supplier to a recruitment firm, were chosen for their entrepreneurial flair, fighting off stiff competition from hundreds of other nominees.

But some businesswomen feel that with successful female entrepreneurs now numerous enough to have lost their rarity value, the time is fast approaching when such women-only award schemes should be scrapped.

Measuring up

They argue that women entrepreneurs have nothing left to prove, and should now be judged on their merits alongside their male counterparts.

There is a lingering feeling also that women-only award ceremonies are in some sense patronising.

"[Women-only awards] have been done to death. We should compete equally with men," declares Eileen Woutersz, president of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs.

It is certainly true that female entrepreneurs are more visible than ever before.

Scarcely a week goes by that one of the UK's national newspapers does not profile a female small business prodigy such as Michelle Mone, creator of the top-selling Ultimo bra, or Coffee Republic co-founder Sahar Hashemi.

But other businesswomen retort that the recent proliferation of female entrepreneurial role models should not be mistaken as a sign that women now enjoy as easy a route into business as men.

They believe that since women still face particular obstacles in getting their businesses off the ground - a common problem is convincing their (male) bank managers to take them seriously - successful female entrepreneurs deserve particular recognition.

And even if they do have reservations about women-only award schemes, businesswomen who are nominated to them find the experience overwhelmingly positive.

Confidence boost

Lucy Sage, founder and principal of the Newcastle-based Sage Academy for the Performing Arts, was the runner-up in a female entrepreneurship award for the North-East region last year.

"Part of me wondered why we had to have a women-only shortlist," she admits.

"But it was a major confidence boost to be nominated. I had started my business when I was still in my mid 20s, and I think a lot of people thought I was biting off more than I could chew."

Confidence is key to business success, and some experts believe that the morale boost women gain from having their entrepreneurial achievements recognised should outweigh all other considerations.

For professor Susan Vinnicombe, professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield School of Management, women's apparent success at setting up their own businesses is at odds with their continued exclusion from Britain's big corporate boardrooms.

She is hopeful that businesswomen, if sufficiently encouraged, could build on their entrepreneurial success to blaze their way into the upper echelons of British industry.

"On one level, [women-only award schemes] are like a quota system, so in principle I'm opposed to them," says Susan Vinnicombe, professor of organisational behaviour at Cranfield School of Management.

"But on the other hand, progress just isn't happening in this country," she says.

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