Has e-commerce shattered the glass ceiling?

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Fearless Girl' stature with girl with hands on her hips facing a bull

We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by digging deep into the world of e-commerce and exploring how it creates more opportunities for women to excel1.

Have new ideas and working opportunities shaken up outdated business practices? E-commerce is full of prominent and talented women and we're taking a look at how they got to where they are today. 

As consumers, women have an enormous impact on the economy. In fact, women drive 70–80% of consumer purchasing. Also, businesses with a heavier female presence are more profitable, according to The Peterson Institute. However, only 4.8% 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’, of the dozens of pictures that flash up, only a few are women. It’s not a great state of affairs, but let's take a look at the wider picture and explore some industry trends.

Women CEOs are 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. 

Ghizlan Guenez founded 'modest fashion' label, The Modist, in 2017. Her mission is to offer women around the world a range of different brands, all carefully selected to be elegant, well made and modest. But defining ‘modesty’ is not what the brand set out to do. Instead, they offer curated collections that prioritize length of sleeves, hems, necklines and opacity. The brand's success is down to knowing what women around the world want. Guenez said: “Our website receives traffic from every country in the world. Our top five locations are the UAE, US, UK, Saudi Arabia and Canada. Recently we even had hits from the Sahara Desert.”

Conquer the world from the comfort of your house

The hugely successful  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 13 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 shop2. 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. Many e-commerce brands live and die by their Instagram feeds and Bikini brand Kulani Kinis got it right from day one. Launched in 2015, their bright, breezy aesthetic and high-end photography hit the sweet spot with their audience,  rapidly gaining a large number of followers. Founder Dani Atkins and her partner Alex Babich  hit AU$1.5m in annual revenue by June 2018.

Having managed the re-design of her own home and the homes of friends, Sam Hood, Founder of luxury home e-commerce brand Amara, realized there was a gap in the market for a first class interior design service outside of London, which could also offer the world’s most exclusive brands3. In 2006, she decided to open an interiors shop in her hometown of Chelmsford, UK. In 2016, they launched their first self-titled collection: A by Amara. After 12 years spent representing some of the most prestigious names in luxury homeware, Amara has become a brand in its own right.

Has e-commerce made it easier for women in business? 

It certainly seems as though the e-commerce world is well suited to entrepreneurial women, in part because it allows the flexibility to balance lives around work. The industry has become more accessible, with women running businesses from home or on-the-go4. It’s also now far easier to build a business outside of a primary job and sell creative goods, via sites like Etsy and Facebook Marketplace. Social selling came of age last year and is having a huge impact in 2019.  This is an area where women tend to excel, because social suits women's shopping habits.

Selling on these platforms can grow your brand quickly.  However, if your business is run by just one person, the perception of size (and therefore, buyer trust) can be a concern - using an expert partner like DHL Express to deliver your goods is a sure way to look like a larger operator.

Nomvuyo Treffers launched Swimma in 2016, and specializes in swim caps made of silicon, rather than latex, that come in many different sizes to accommodate all hair styles: dreadlocks, braids, afros, long hair, and weaves – with smaller caps specially designed for children. Treffers’ thinking shifted quickly from being a small business serving a local market, to a global company with clients all over the world. She attributes the quick success to a number of things, but first and foremost was the immediate demand from international customers.

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. To learn more, read our guide on how to make the most of the social selling market.

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 women entrepreneurs are flourishing in e-commerce. 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 an entrepreneurial woman. It’s important to note that, overall, there are still significant gender gaps in e-commerce businesses. The map below created by Market Inspector highlights how many women are in top leadership positions around the world. It’s clear to see there are still a high number of businesses that have much to gain from investing in a female perspective, especially in executive decisions. Although overall trends are moving in a positive direction, there is still a long way to go in female equality in businesses. 

The whole world stands to benefit from women taking more leading roles. Increasing women's 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 stat which shows a change that will benefit all, in the long run5. This year's International Women's Day campaign theme is #BalanceForBetter, which encourages everyone to help forge a more gender-balanced world. 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. Check out these handy sources for women in business for information on networking opportunities and much more.