Cydly Langer Smith, chairwoman of the Board of Olympic Bancorp, the parent company of Kitsap Bank
Photo by Jeff Hobson

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? 

“I think (doing so) is both patronizing and necessary,” said Cydly Langer Smith, chairwoman of the Board of Olympic Bancorp, the parent company of Kitsap Bank — a role she called “the captain of the ship” that also was held by her mother and grandmother. Smith, who has been at the helm of Kitsap Bank for eight years, believes that any hardworking and successful businessperson should be celebrated, regardless of gender — but that women’s stories remain important to highlight because equity is far from achieved. 

“Even though there are more women than ever who are opening businesses and who are successful businesswomen, until there is a critical mass of women in C suites, or on boards, or in leadership roles, we will have to have this conversation for the indefinite future,” Smith said. “I think it’s unfortunate, but it’s also just the reality.” 

Make no mistake: Despite the obstacles and the need for more women in high-level positions like Smith’s, women are killing it in business. 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 include 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.” 

Traci Hansen, program manager at the Washington Center for Women in Business in Lacey, helped explain some of the asymmetry. 

“Women (often) start businesses
because they have a passion for what it is they do, or they see a need and want to fill that need in the community; (they) know someone’s life would be made better if they get their product or service into their hands,” said Hansen, who runs a team of business coaches who mentor female business-owners across the state in an effort to level the playing field. “Because of that, they often
underprice themselves.” 

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 — generate 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 when 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. 

Krista Perez, founder, Tacoma Women
of Color Collective
Photo by Jeff Hobson

As this gap continues to grow larger — 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 last year’s $145,900 — businesswomen like Tacoma’s Krista Perez are taking efforts to create spaces where women of color feel safe so that they can grow and flourish in their entrepreneurial pursuits. 

“We’re wanting to promote and empower women to grow a business entrepreneurially and to not only close that pay gap but surpass it,” said Perez, who started the Tacoma Women of Color Collective in January to connect women of color to resources, workshops, and more that will help them be successful in business. 

Providing these necessities to women of color in business — which are backed by the City of Tacoma’s Department of Community and Economic Development and the Tacoma Urban League — is one way to help close the gap between women of color and white women in the business sphere. And doing so only serves to propel forward 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 Perez is doing includes hosting monthly events that dive into issues like imposter syndrome and how to combat it as a woman of color in business circles, as well as working to make women of color more visible in areas of policy and legislative action, education, and more. 

“(Women of color) really are here, and we really are educated, and we have business experience, and we are business owners,” Perez said. “It’s not a figment of our imagination. So many people have reached out to me to be involved in this, which affirms that I am filling a gap. I am meeting a need.” 

From both Hansen’s and Smith’s perspectives, a main way forward toward equity is putting women, and specifically women of color, on boards of directors and leadership teams.

“When women are leaders, they start being more represented in loan numbers, in employment numbers, in everything,” Hansen said, alluding to the fact that as of 2017, women made up 6.4 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 30.1 percent of university presidents, and 19.4 percent of Congress. “We really need to bring women and women of color into those spaces where leadership decisions are being made and goals are being set — that’s how the work gets done. Representation matters.” 

And representation is why we’re still talking about women in business: Until all women earn the same as their white male counterparts and the same as one another — and until the space they take up in every industry is normalized and unquestioned — highlighting their stories is essential. 

Perez knows this personally as a Latina who grew up not seeing women who looked like her in the career fields she wanted to pursue. As she got older, she said, she realized that climbing the ladder in whatever career she chose was not just about her; it was about setting an example for young women of color and giving them the opportunity to see someone who looks like them be successful. 

“I want young women to see themselves in me and say, ‘She did that, so I can do that,’” Perez said. 

The impact engendered by the unapologetic presence of businesswomen like Perez will hopefully be a factor that moves the needle further toward equity for all women. 

“Women business leaders are trailblazers and change leaders and they should be honored for doing that, particularly in areas where there isn’t historically a lot of female representation or participation,” Smith said. “Until such time as all women are equally represented as leaders in business, we probably will have to have some form of this kind of conversation.” 

And when we get there, maybe we’ll finally be able to put the women in business discourse to bed.