Talking about women in business can feel like an exhausted trope. We ask women how they balance it all — the kids, the groceries, the companies they start — though we’d likely not ask a man the same question. And the continued emphasis on women in business might, to some, feel patronizing in itself: Does that emphasis highlight a mentality that we’re surprised that women are even in the business sphere? That they are able to juggle so much? Should we ever focus on gender in business?

Lisa Hufford

Lisa Hufford, founder and CEO of Simplicity Consulting. Photo by Lisi Wolf

“I’d say that we’re still talking about it because it’s still not the norm,” said Lisa Hufford, founder and CEO of Simplicity Consulting, a Kirkland-based marketing and business consultancy that has been named to the Inc. 5000 list for five years running as one of the country’s fastest-growing private companies. Though she said she’s seen major improvements for women in business over the course of her career — which included more than a decade of work in large corporations such as Microsoft before she branched off nearly 15 years ago to start Simplicity Consulting after the birth of her second son — it’s clear that there is a lot further to go.

“At the Fortune 500 level, there are only a handful of female CEOs,” Hufford said, citing the 2019 list that shows 33 women running Fortune 500 companies. That’s an all-time high for women, yet still just 6.6 percent of the total number.

“Fourteen years ago, when I started my company, I joined a couple of CEO groups and I’d look around the room, and it was definitely 95 percent men,” Hufford said. “But I am so encouraged: I mentor a lot of female entrepreneurs, and there are so many talented women coming up the ranks. I think we’re in the middle of a pretty significant shift of women business owners coming into the market over the next 10 to 20 years. I think the landscape is going to be very different.”

Despite historical obstacles that have translated, in part, into the need for more women in high-level positions like Hufford’s, women are killing it in business nowadays. According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses report, produced by American Express, women-owned businesses have increased 31-fold since 1972, when the U.S. Census Bureau first began collecting such data, rising from 402,000 (4.6 percent of all firms) to 12.3 million (40 percent of all firms) in 2018.

And in the last 11 years, which includes some of the years of the Great Recession, the number of businesses in the United States increased by 12 percent, while the number of women-owned businesses has grown 58 percent.

The upward progression communicated by these statistics is complicated, however, when they are placed adjacent to other data collected in the annual study.

“The growth in women-owned businesses has been uneven,” the report states. “Women have gone from owning 4.6 percent to 40 percent of all businesses. However, these businesses account for only 8 percent of all employment and 4.3 percent of total revenues.”

Research also shows that women have less access to capital — they received only 2 percent of venture capital investments in 2017 — and are more likely than men to start a part-time business with the desire for flexibility to accommodate caregiving responsibilities, which research also shows are still mainly shouldered by women. As a result of these factors and myriad others, the vast majority of women-owned businesses — 88 percent in 2018 — generates revenues of less than $100,000.

Whether it’s a matter of underpricing themselves because their business is a passion project, or because it is a part-time endeavor that they are balancing with family or a full-time job — or a combination of such circumstances — women are consistently falling behind in the money they’re making as business owners compared to their male counterparts.

This gap is wide even among women themselves: In 2018, the average revenue for a women-of-color-owned business was $66,400, compared to the average revenue of $212,300 for businesses owned by white women.

Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno (left) and Aparna Rae, cofounders of Future For Us. Photo by Anthony Smith

As this gap continues to grow — in 2007, the average difference in revenue between businesses owned by white women and those owned by women of color was $96,900, compared to 2018’s $145,900 — businesswomen like entrepreneurial team Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno and Aparna Rae are fighting for equity and inclusivity in the workplace and wider business sphere through their own company, Future For Us.

“The three pillars of our work are community, culture, and career,” explained Rae, a Seattle-based entrepreneur whose work has included building a teacher-education program in India and centering women of color in the philanthropy and social sectors locally. “One of the biggest needs Future For Us fills is making it possible for women of color across sectors to know each other through monthly gatherings, conferences, and our Slack channel.”

Providing these necessities to women of color is one way to help close the gap in the business sphere, because those women can share experiences, resources, and ideas. And doing so only serves to advance the interests of everyone.

“If revenues generated by minority women-owned firms matched those currently generated by all women-owned businesses, they would add 4 million new jobs and $1.2 trillion in revenues to the U.S. economy,” states the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses report, which shows women of color accounting for 47 percent of all women-owned businesses.

The work that Rae and Quiamno do extends beyond connecting women of color across industries in the Seattle area; it also loops in businesses of all sizes that want to be effective allies and successfully build diversity and inclusion in the fabric of their companies.

“The other side of what we do is raising awareness about the needs and experiences of women of color at work: We’re creating a space where allies and people who have decision-making roles in companies can know what the current state of affairs is,” Rae said.

“We know it’s important to engage our allies, because we all need each other,” Quiamno added. “They’re the ones with the power. We need to collectively hold each other accountable and also collectively lift each other up. We advance forward together.”

This topic has been on the mind of Simplicity Consulting’s Hufford, who said she didn’t experience many gender-related obstacles in her but acknowledges that much of this may be due to the fact that she is white. Team members from her business have attended events hosted by Future For Us as Hufford more intentionally looks at the purpose of her own company’s role in providing a safe, inclusive, and equitable workplace for all.

“Becoming more aware of this, I really take it as a personal mission to try to learn and understand how we can create an inclusive workspace and go beyond the realm of the people who have historically been more traditional hires,” Hufford said.

For women of color, the opportunity to be mentored, promoted, supported, and joined by others like them is the main issue at hand, according to Rae. But the issue cannot be solved simply by putting women of color in senior positions.

“When you’re the only one at the top, you’re still doing a lot of things to conform,” she said. “In this moment, I think that it doesn’t matter as much that an organization has an equitable number of women of color in leadership roles — what matters is that everybody else sees it as a priority.”

In terms of the wage gap that is often discussed — with black women making 74 cents to a white man’s dollar, according to payscale.com — Rae said the numbers are somewhat misleading because the collected data is uncontrolled: the median salaries of all men compared to the median salaries of all women. Controlled data, on the other hand — the median salary for men and women with the same job and qualifications — show more equity in those numbers.

But that doesn’t translate to workplace equity.

“You shouldn’t be upset about making less, necessarily — you should be upset that you’re not getting promoted fast enough, that you’re not getting a great starting salary, that you’re not getting the high-paying job at Amazon but are stuck working at a small IT company,” Rae said. “And as far as a lot of data reported: I think that anything commissioned by a corporation likely has some design flaws in the research. But if you just look around in companies, it’s clear women of color need additional support and resources.”

That general lack of representation in companies at all levels is compounded by unconscious bias, according to Rae. She has three degrees, has started three businesses, and has lived in the United States for 20 years. Despite these accomplishments, she cites her own personal experience of often being mistaken as a nanny, or asked to take notes during a meeting by someone who was clearly in a lower hierarchical position. Quiamno pointed to an experience at a startup, where she was the only woman of color, when she was given tasks like making coffee for fellow employees.

And that’s a huge reason we’re still talking about women in business: Until all women’s presence in the workplace is normalized, unquestioned, and respected — especially as they rise through the ranks and earn themselves senior positions — highlighting their stories is essential.

In terms of optimism on the topic, Quiamno’s tone echoed Hufford’s hope that the landscape is a changing one.

“Historically, I do think that women of color have been sidelined in conversations revolving around women in business,” she said. “But things are rapidly changing. There’s more accountability on companies, and there are so many phenomenal allies in our community who have been showing up for this change. The media attention, visibility, industry experts talking about this — I do think it makes a difference.”

The talk likely will continue until a genuine form of equity in what is a complex and ever-changing sphere is achieved. Then, maybe we can put the women-in-business conversation to bed.