Chupi Sweetman-Durney ran away from home when she was 6. She wisely took along the duvet cover from her bed, her doll and a book. She found a nesting spot under a tree, about a half-mile from her home in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. While her parents tracked her down in short order, it was her first overt action of independence.
But it was not her last.
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After working as a women’s clothing designer for the British retailer Topshop for six years, Ms. Sweetman-Durney realized at 27 that she “just wasn’t in love with it anymore,” she said.
“It seemed crazy to quit, but I wanted to create something that would last and celebrate Ireland’s design history and craftsmanship.”
Starting her own business making jewelry wasn’t as easy as a march down the lane to a nearby tree. “The big challenges were being young and a woman,” she said. “I wasn’t taken seriously at first.”
“Although I was brought up in a family where I did not have much experience with discrimination,” Ms. Sweetman-Durney said, “I had faced it after landing my contract with Topshop to design women’s dresses in 2005. I was refused a credit card with 500 euros of available credit, even though I had gone to the bank and shown them the contract.” At the same time, her boyfriend (now her husband, Brian) was a student and was accepted for a card with a credit line five times that amount.
Now 33, she runs her own successful Dublin-based jewelry business, Chupi, started four years ago.
Ms. Sweetman-Durney was fortunate to have a role model in her mother, Rosita Sweetman, an author and feminist, who was part of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, and raised her to believe in her ability to create. “She taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
This year, Chupi expects to sell 17,000 pieces of jewelry in 64 countries, has doubled sales annually for the last three years and has grown to a staff of 22.
Moreover, the business is profitable and carries no debt. “When I was starting out, there were few people who believed that I could be creative and also be skilled at marketing, selling and running a business,” Ms. Sweetman-Durney said. “But I love the business side of things. My dad’s an economist, so I got the best of both worlds.”
An increasing number of women, like Ms. Sweetman-Durney, are starting businesses as a way to take control of their careers.
In part female entrepreneurship is on the rise because gender equality efforts in the workplace to address issues like the salary gap and advancement to positions on corporate boards have stalled.
“Women’s advancement in workplaces has flatlined,” said Ellen Galinsky, the president and a founder of the Families and Work Institute. “In the 2016 National Study of Employers, there are fewer U.S. companies providing paid family leave, and when you look at flexibility over all, there is less part-time work than in previous reports.”
The frustrations of the traditional workplace are palpable for women. The study Route to the Top 2017, by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, examined the number of female chief executives in the United States, Britain, France and Germany. Of those, the United States, the study found, had the largest share of female chiefs, with about 8 percent of the top spots held by women.
However, that number declined by 1 percentage point from 2015 to 2016, according to the study. The percentage rose in Britain, from 5 percent to 6 percent. France remained the same at 2 percent and Germany stayed at 1 percent.
“Women have made little notable progress toward the top job in any country we studied since the inception of this research in 2011,” the report’s authors said.
In the Global Gender Gap Report 2016, the World Economic Forum declared that “given the widening economic gender gap,” parity between sexes “will not be closed for another 170 years,” even though, in 95 countries, women attend universities in equal or higher numbers than men.
Time out of the work force to raise children continues to be a major barrier. A study from Visier, a work force analytics firm, found the gender wage gap at large United States employers widens at age 32 because that’s when many women leave work to have and care for children; it’s also around the age workers start to advance up the corporate ladder. While men and women hold about the same number of management positions throughout their 20s, once workers hit the age of 32, men hold a notably higher proportion of those positions. And managers earn, on average, double what nonmanagers do, according to the report.
“The discrimination is so deeply ingrained that it’s very hard to dislodge whatever the realities are,” Ms. Galinsky said. “Education has improved so people come in with more equality, but when they begin to have family responsibilities, even though men are taking on more, there’s the attitude that if you have a family you are not committed, or you are a slacker.”
Other workplace experts agree. “The advancement of women in business is stalled out or worse, in certain areas moving backward,” said Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women; chairwoman of Ellevate Network; and the author of “Own It: The Power of Women at Work.” “And it has been for a period of time.”
Companies that are run by women tend to be free of the gap, Ms. Krawcheck said. For women who take time out for child rearing, or need flexibility, the problem often is not with their employer’s family leave policy, she said. “It comes down to the middle manager who is making the individual miserable. When I had children, I had fantastic bosses who never questioned that I was coming back and helped me navigate through it,” she said. “They didn’t see gender.”
But the challenge of returning to work is even greater for women who stay out of the work force for extended periods of time, or who take frequent breaks to raise children. That was the case for Lea Giovanniello, 59, the Virginia woman who found that resuming a full-time job in the technology sector two years ago required hitting the books for a new degree.
Ms. Giovanniello stepped away from a fast-track information technology job with Northrop Corporation. Over the course of more than two decades after she left, she taught math and science in public schools and worked in various I.T. positions at embassies and consulates where her husband was posted with the foreign service.
When her children headed to college, she decided to restart her career. “The problem is that the tech field keeps moving on at a brisk pace, and my skills were out of date,” Ms. Giovanniello said. “When I started looking at the job listings, it just felt so futile. I probably sent out maybe a dozen résumés and never got back so much as an automatic response.”
She earned a master of science degree in computer forensics from George Mason University in 2014. Then, through FlexProfessionals, a part-time job staffing firm, she was hired by Corsec Security, an I.T. security consulting company in Herndon, Va., as a part-time computer security engineer. Today, she’s on staff as a certifications analyst.
FlexProfessionals, based in the Washington, D.C.-metro area, was co-founded by Gwenn Rosener, a former $160,000-a-year Ernst & Young senior manager with an M.B.A. from Harvard who couldn’t land even a decent part-time job in 2010 when she decided to stop being a stay-at-home mother. So she and two other women, who had also stepped out of the work force, started a company to help people like themselves find work.
The agency appeals to the working woman “who doesn’t want extremes,” Ms. Rosener said. “When talking about the working options for women, it’s either the stay-at-home mom who gives up her career, or the working mom trying to juggle family and 40-plus-hour weeks. But the part-time option keeps them engaged in the work force, keeps their skills current and allows them to scale back when they need to and then scale back up when the time is right. It’s is a good transition option and can be empowering for women in the workplace.”
Entrepreneurship can also be the right move for many women, as it was for Debra Dixon, 52, of Washington, who left a government position at the Education Department to start her own consulting business.
“I would say embracing change and having a passion for what I’m doing has allowed me to stay as vibrant in my career as I was 10 years ago,” Ms. Dixon said. “The workplace is a very competitive environment, so you have to stay ahead of the competition, look around corners and think about what the future might hold. Thinking about what I might want to be doing next, a couple of steps ahead, has always helped. You never know where the opportunities will present themselves.”
In 2016, there were an estimated 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States — a 45 percent increase since 2007, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express.
And the trend both in the United States and around the world shows no signs of letting up. “It has been really interesting to be involved in female entrepreneurship in Europe,” said Joanne Hession, founder of the Dublin-based Entrepreneurs Academy. “There is no question that I have seen an explosion in terms of female entrepreneurship in Ireland and Europe more generally.”
“Among European women in their 20s, women are actively searching for a path to what they want to achieve professionally and are looking to shape their own futures — and for these women, starting their own businesses is seen as a completely acceptable solution,” she said.
One big factor is a rise in female entrepreneurship role models across Europe, according to Ms. Hession, citing Ireland’s Dr. Sarah Bourke (co-founder of the space technology company Skytek) and Anne Heraty (founder of the international recruitment company Cpl Resources); Britain’s Sara Murray (founder of the insurance comparison website Confused.com); France’s Catherine Barba (of Cashstore and Malinea) and Germany’s Delia Fischer (founder of the home furnishing website Westwing). All, she said are “visible public examples of what can be achieved by women. I don’t think it is possible to overestimate the importance of having this kind of role model.”
Further evidence of the power to change the workplace reality for women: Two-thirds of female entrepreneurs feel they have broken through the glass ceiling but feel their challenges to achieving success are more considerable than those of their male counterparts, according to a 2017 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report. The ability to pursue their passions through entrepreneurial activities is a core characteristic of the women entrepreneurs interviewed.
“Female entrepreneurs, particularly those over age 50, are igniting intergenerational entrepreneurship partnerships and collaborations among women of all ages,” said Elizabeth Isele, founder and chief executive of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship. “Intergenerational partnerships between women dispel age-related stereotypes and build strong bonds across age, race and ethnicity in our increasingly diverse workplaces,” Ms. Isele said.
It’s a matter of autonomy. “For me, and I think many women today, there’s a need to have control over your destiny,” said Ms. Sweetman-Durney, the Irish jeweler. “Life is precious. It’s easy to think you’re not smart enough, or creative enough, to start your own business, but if I stopped every time I thought I had failed, I wouldn’t have made it this far.”