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What are the challenges for female business owners in the trades sector?

5-minute read

Conor Shilling

14 March 2022

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Just four per cent of small businesses in the trades sector are owned by women, according to Simply Business research.

As part of our Empowering Women in Business initiative, we spoke to two female-run trades businesses to learn more about their successes as well as the challenges they’ve faced.

Donna Holt is Managing Director of Electric4u, a family-run electrical company based in Surrey, and Charlie Doolan is Head Gardener at Well Rooted, a landscaping company in Hampshire.

So, what does it take to run a successful trades business in 2022?

A new business going from strength to strength

Of the 800 female business owners we spoke to, a third (32 per cent) described running a business as ‘rewarding’, while 92 per cent said they feel confident about running their business over the next 12 months.

But what are the skills required to grow a company and be a success in the trades sector?

A sister company to Plumb4U, Electric4U was set up by Donna and her husband in January 2021 after they identified increasing demand for electrical work.

Donna had been working in the city for 30 years, most recently at a large investment bank. Over the last year the new business has gone from strength, now employing three electricians.

Donna says one of the biggest achievements is the growth of the business’s electric vehicle charging installation services.

“It’s the eco side of the business that originally inspired me to start up, so I find that rewarding,” she explained.

According to Donna, knowing when to walk away from an opportunity when it seems like a good one is a key risk management skill she’s had to call upon while the business has been growing.

Following a childhood passion

Meanwhile, after a varied career in the automotive, banking, telecoms, pharmaceuticals, and education sectors, Charlie decided to follow a passion she’d had since she was a child and become a landscape gardener.

Well Rooted, a name devised by Charlie’s dad, was born in 2016 and operates across North Hampshire.

One of the company’s best moments so far was finishing its first big landscaping and planting job.

Landscaped gardening project

However, it’s not just the gardening side of things that Charlie enjoys.

“The most rewarding times are seeing the joy and gratitude on my customers' faces when I've planted a beautiful garden for them to look out on during lockdown, or collected their prescription and bought them a coffee, or simply remembered their birthday with a card and flowers,” she said.

She explained that a combination of being determined and daring while remaining grounded and humble is the key to building a successful trades business.

On a practical side, Charlie recommends having an eye for detail when it comes to accounting and cash flow.

Working in a male-dominated environment

Charlie said that when she first started her business, people were surprised when she walked into builders’ yards. She said she had to work at being a professional in a new world to gain respect.

“I wear steel toe cap boots, have muddy trousers, and get my coffee and sausage roll from Greggs with all the other tradesmen! I have good relationships with the suppliers and quite often, they'll go the extra mile for me,” she explained.

Donna advised those just starting out in the trades sector not to think about it being a male-dominated environment. She added that she’s looking forward to hiring her first female electrician.

Bullying still exists in construction

One of our survey respondents, who works in the construction sector, said she’s seen more women in the industry over the last 10 years but the percentage is still very low, which backs up our findings.

Some of her experiences of sexism in the building trade include:

  • not being taken seriously
  • having tools taken out of her hands by men
  • men being rude and dismissive
  • aggression, arrogance, and poor behaviour

She said bullying is less prevalent than it was before but it still exists, which is one of the main reasons why she started her own business.

“It’s both a fault on our society, that men have been taught to behave like that, and a fault with women that we feel we have to take discrimination because it’s normal,” she said.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

A quarter of female business owners told us they struggle with confidence, while 41 per cent said they’d like the opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs.

According to Donna, women in the trades sector should have the courage to ask for help.

“It is amazing how keen people are to help you with various strategies and advice if needed,” she said.

She added that it’s also important to take advantage of opportunities to network both online and in person.

“I’m a member of a few different women's networks set up by people in the city and I have also contributed to them for previous employers. I find them invaluable to build contacts and assist with business opportunities.”

Charlie, on the other hand, had a good support network from church when she started on her business journey.

“You have to rely on your friends to 'like' what you do on social media and help spread the word,” she said.

Who are female business owners inspired by?

There are many inspiring female business owners around the country, working across all sectors. However, one in 10 entrepreneurs we spoke to said they don’t have access to the same networks or mentors as men.

Charlie said one of the first inspiring women in business she thinks of is Mags Mercer, CEO of the Hope Hub, which aims to prevent and end homelessness in the Surrey Heath borough.

Donna said she looks up to Sara Davies, a successful entrepreneur and the founder of Crafter's Companion. She’s also been on the panel of BBC’s Dragon’s Den since 2019.

“She’s from my neck of the woods so I can appreciate her background and the challenges she’s had to overcome to get to where she is,” Donna explained.

A third (34 per cent) of business owners we spoke to said they’d like greater access to support for funding, mentorship, and networks.

That’s why as part of the Empowering Women in Business initiative, we’re offering one female entrepreneur the chance to win an exclusive business mentorship with Karren Brady CBE.

We’re also running a free webinar on 17th March 2022, during which you’ll hear from inspiring women in business, including Karren Brady CBE and the award-winning team at Watch This Sp_ce, an inclusivity and diversity consultancy based in Brighton. Find out more details and sign up.

Are you thinking of starting a business?

It was pleasing to see that 96 per cent of female entrepreneurs we spoke to would recommend starting a business to other women.

Read our how-to guides for tips on starting a business in the trades sector:

We’ve also got a range of in-depth guides on other key parts of starting a business:

Which female business owners are you inspired by? Let us know in the comments below.

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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