No longer a man’s world: Women are closing the gender gap among small-business owners

Wiscoy for Animals owner Wanda Crosby poses with her dog Rikkey in the store. Crosby started the business in 1990.
Wiscoy for Animals owner Wanda Crosby poses with her dog Rikkey in the store. Crosby started the business in 1990. CDT photo

Wanda Crosby lets her 10-year-old Labrador retriever Rikkey lie on a dog bed under her desk.

Calling all the shots, even for something as little as letting her dog roam the office, is a perk of being a business owner.

Women increasingly know what it feels like to be business leaders, because they have slowly closed the gender gap in business ownership.

The number of women-owned businesses has increased at about 1.5 times the rate of the national average since 1997, according to American Express’ 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report. The proportion of women-owned businesses increased from 26.5 percent to 29.6 percent from 1997 to 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Crosby opened Wiscoy in 1990 to spend more time with her 1-year-old dog Hoss, Rikkey’s great-uncle.

Working on her family’s farm as a child, she said, instilled in her independence that led her away from working for others.

“I don’t know that I was inspired to have my own business rather than taught to have my own business,” Crosby said. “The decision-making process about prioritizing your day, your week, your month really resonated with me. I didn’t work well corporately, because it meant somebody made decisions for you, and I thought you should be able to have choices. I think that was engrained in me, because my family was farmers.”

Crosby says she thinks women were as much a part of family businesses when agriculture was prominent in the national economy.

“In the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, people were mostly sustainable farmers,” she said. “My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were instrumental to the family’s income stream. Then, in post-World War II, there is a gap for a few decades.”

The gap, she said, was due to industrialization and societal expectations of women.

“I can tell you whether I was male or female it wouldn’t have mattered when I opened Wiscoy, because it was simply what I was going to do,” Crosby said. “If I grew up in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, would it have been different? Sure. There has been a long progression and overall cultural change since then.”

Patty Stover, co-owner of Jezebel’s Boutique in Patton Township, agrees that there are noticeably more women in business today than a few decades ago.

Stover opened the store, which recently moved to Colonnade Boulevard, in downtown State College with her daughter Jessie Stover in 2007.

“When I was younger, more businesses were run by men,” Patty Stover said. “I can’t remember women having businesses unless it was a salon, but now I think there’s more women that want to do a greater variety of things.”

“The boutique was the first thing we came up with that no one else was doing in State College except for Victoria’s Secret,” Jessie Stover added.

Maureen Mulvihill, co-founder, president and CEO of Actuated Medical in Bellefonte, has seen more women become engineers in the past 10 years. Actuated develops medical devices to make procedures safer for patients.

“I think women are pushing through that glass ceiling,” she said. “Women can do it as well. In our case, women want to make a difference and be successful and make changes.”

Female business owners may experience some differences compared with their male counterparts.

“I can’t think of too many partnerships I’ve had with women,” Mulvihill said.

“I think it’s harder for women to find peers, because there are less women business owners,” Crosby added. “I don’t know if men find peers. I think they do. I hope they do. I’ve been challenged by some degree of isolation that way for women-to-women owned businesses, but that may be because I’ve been busy. Have I not found it or sought it enough? I’m not sure.”

Investors also treat female business owners differently, according to Harvard Business School, which found in a study that men were 60 percent more likely to receive funding than women.

“Looking for investors could have been difficult in previous years, but that’s changed a little bit,” Mulvihill said.

Crosby said others may have judged her chances of succeeding as a business owner because she is a woman.

“There were more people that thought I would fail at this business, and if I were a man maybe more people would have thought that I would succeed,” she said. “I suspect that the assessment of how I’d do if you asked everybody I came into contact with about my new, developing business in that first year, I bet most would say failure. That could just be what I carried, but it seemed most thought I wouldn’t succeed.”

The day-to-day grind of running a business, however, is probably the same.

“Whatever business a man has they have the same challenges we do,” Patty Stover said. “I worked in one business for 20 years, and they had the same ups and downs as we do here.”

“I think the challenges and wins are the same,” Crosby said. “You have easy successes and difficult ongoing problems. They may be different challenges and wins, but I bet the numbers are about the same.”

You just have to call the right shots.