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During the 1990's, American women have made unprecedented moves away from corporate business into the home-based work world. Seeking a way to incorporate their career and personal interests with family responsibilities, they are tearing down the stereotype of Supermom and replacing it with Mompreneur, a new image that allows for more creativity, flexibility, and personal expression.
The growth of home-based women-owned businesses has been phenomenal, especially when the traditional role of women is taken into consideration. Until the 1950's (excluding a period during the early 1940's when women took up positions in the workforce vacated by men fighting in World War II) America still embraced the ideal woman as a Donna Reeves stereotype (Scott 274). A woman was meant to stay at home and attend to her domestic duties, nurture her children, and support her husband in all things -- all done with grace, style, and no murmur of discontent (Behr and Lazar 18-19)!
Girls born during the 1950's grew up in a transitional world. Older women were beginning to make inroads in the work world, but there was as yet no emphasis on goal- setting, no encouragement to take up a career. Neither was there discouragement, but the lack of parental and teacher guidance created a generation of lost women, many of whom now face their midlife years with little or no idea of what to do with themselves.
The generation that followed these lost women was more fortunate. Opportunities in the work force were opening up, and schools were beginning the slow process of restructuring and rethinking needed to encourage young women to seek career options. Many of these young women embraced this new opportunity, creating a generation of over-achievers who sought to carve out a place for themselves as equals in the corporate world. These women spawned the term Supermom and, in doing so, created an entirely new set of issues for women to face.
Foremost among these issues was burnout. A majority of typical Supermoms were part of two-income families where both husband and wife worked long hours. In the words of one Maryland woman who found herself with all the domestic duties in addition to her full-time career: "Something had to give. I thought, 'This is not right. I'm cheating someone and I'm probably cheating everyone,' ... I needed to be home" (Yoest 1).
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For some women, burnout was only part of a more serious problem. In a personal interview, Bette Bellefeuille in Seattle spoke to me about her situation after she and her husband began full-time work in the stocks and mutual funds industry: "We thought it would be wonderful ... we could get out of debt and I could get back to pursuing my career. But we didn't want to abandon our children." They made a common decision -- to work different hours so that one of them could always be home. The results were a disaster. "After almost a year, my husband and I hardly know each other," she told me. "The few times we're together, we talk about bills, house repairs, or the kids. My marriage is falling apart!"
My friend's situation was not unique, but even women who found they were more emotionally prepared to deal with the stress of juggling careers and personal lives had difficulties. Many found the corporate world did not live up to their expectations, or that their career aspirations were blocked by a "glass ceiling." In addition, the recession brought with it downsizing and restructuring, and many businesswomen had no choices but to look at alternatives to pursuing the Supermom vision (Cohen 1). Fortune magazine found that 87% of the executive women polled in a 1995 survey had made or were considering making a major change in their lives. In Fortune's words, "The generation of women that blazed new trails into the corporate suites is, evidently, blazing its own trails out" (Yoest 2). This move is reflected in figures from the 1990 Census, which shows that approximately one million women were employed in home-based businesses (Edwards and Field-Hendrey 30). By 1997, a Wall Street Journal article estimates that the number has risen to an astounding sixteen million (McClure 2)!
The Census also shows that 80% of those one million women in 1990 were married with children. However, according to a 1996 survey by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, 63% of all home-based women-owned businesses employed people in addition to themselves, indicating a clear trend away from stereotypical cottage industries toward true entrepreneurialism (1). A new image has been established, and Mompreneurs are beginning to make their mark (Parlapiano and Cobe 3).
As a group, Mompreneurs have been primarily white women (88.4%) with high school degrees (33.5%) and/or some college education (31.6%). They are fairly evenly distributed across the age spectrum between 25 and 55, and live in mostly urban settings (68%). In 1990, the majority of these women were able to choose home-based careers because they had a spouse's steady income (mean average family income $50,000) to support their foray into self-employment (Edwards and Field-Hendrey 30). Although 1990 statistics show the average woman-owned home-based business earned only about $10,000 a year, a 1996 survey reveals that 25% of such businesses now make over $100,000 a year, and 9% earn $500,000 or more (Pomice 69)! The primary reason for this rise in income, according to an Ameritech Survey done in 1996, is the availability of technology. Home-based businesswomen are located primarily in the service sector (61.4%), and current advances in technology allow them to bring sophisticated business office systems into their homes for a relatively small investment. 47% of all home-based business owners say they will be increasing their investment in technology over the next year. 93% currently use a computer in their business, 62% have a fax machine, and most have an answering machine, cell phone, and pager as standard equipment (National Foundation for Women Business Owners 1-2). Additionally, the World Wide Web has begun to mark a new era in opportunities for home- based businesses.
Access to the Internet provides two major benefits to Mompreneurs. First, it creates jobs for women with computer programming skills. Web site design and maintenance businesses are an emerging field, and the ability to perform this work at home makes it an ideal business for those women with appropriate skills. Second, the Internet creates a virtual marketplace in which Mompreneurs can advertise their goods and services. "With the Internet and other modern communications technologies, small and home offices, regardless of their location, can plug in easily to the information-based economy" (Blakely 3).
Internet access appears to be used by home-based Mompreneurs across the spectrum of business. From artists to craftswomen, writers to computer programmers, the Internet is an opportunity for Mompreneurs to tap into an enormous pool of potential customers. Even businesses that are more typically labeled "cottage industries" have web sites: virtual craft malls dot the Internet, as do web pages for seamstresses, fine artists, tutors, tour guides, and personaltrainers. Clearly, technology has played an important role in making home-based businesswomen more successful than their counterparts of 1990 and before.
As important as technology has been in making home-based businesswomen more successful, however, it is not the most important factor. The women themselves are the reason for the phenomenal rise in Mompreneurialism in America. More than specific skills or educational know-how, women bring a special strength to the workplace: a love of what they are doing (Behr and Lazar 21). These women, coming from a wide range of skills, choose to work at home because to them families come first. According to Behr and Lazar, the Industrial Revolution created an artificial boundary between life and work, and Mompreneurs mark a growing desire in women to reintegrate those two aspects into one (22).
Through home-based businesses, today's women are able to pursue career interests and still provide the nurturing care they believe essential to the support of their families. Home-based businesses have the additional advantage of allowing for more flexibility in scheduling work, choosing clients, and determining actual work locale. In a September 1997 Black Enterprise article, Wendy Beech interviews a successful African-American home-based businesswoman who says, "I always wanted to do something home-based because you have the advantage of being able to work any hours that you want and your office is always at your disposal" (1). Another businesswoman agrees. "The best parts are the low overhead and the convenience of being home. If I have a brainstorm at 11 p.m., I can work. If you have some creative juices flowing, it's right there for you. There are days I'll forget to come down for lunch" (Roha 4).
Ideal as much of this seems, however, home-based businesswomen face some serious challenges. Adequate business insurance is often difficult to find, and may be beyond the budget of many small business owners. Sean Mooney of the Insurance Information Institute in New York City estimates that 50% of small businesses are either not insured or underinsured. "Some of it's the entrepreneurial spirit ... Some of it's money ... But if a disaster occurs, they're out of business" (Blakely 2).
The Internal Revenue Service is another source of problems. Its rules for allowable deductions for home offices, sometimes contradictory and arbitrary, are strictly enforced. Taking a home-office deduction means an automatic audit by the IRS, according to one representative. IRS tax rules may also create conflicts with city and county zoning ordinances, making it even more difficult for businesswomen to work out of their homes without being in violation of one ordinance or another (Yoest 2).
Local and state governments sometimes add to these difficulties by passing legislation that seems aimed at making it more difficult to operate a home-based business. For example, a new ordinance passed in Los Angeles seeks to implement an additional tax by requiring artists and writers to obtain special permits if they work out of their homes (Forbes 1). This new law is already being contested, but its very passage is an indication that legislators view some home-based businesses as easy targets for increased tax revenues.
Home-based businesses sometimes fail without interference from outside elements. Often, this is due to lack of planning in the initial stages of start-up. Successful home- based businesswomen stress the importance of being professional. Women often face difficulties in securing bank loans and raising enough capital, so having the right image is essential (Stern 2). Doing demographic studies, developing a sound business plan, and having a clearly- defined strategy for how you will run your business were also widely cited as critical elements to being successful as a home-based businesswoman. There are a number of organizations that provide this type of business information service at little or no charge. Among them are the Service Corps of Retired Executives, the Small Business Administration, the Home Office Association of America, and the Association of Enterprising Mothers, all of whom have sites on the World Wide Web (Cohen 6).
Clearly, home-based businesses are not for all women. Running a home-based business requires self-discipline, imagination, persistence, and a willingness to take calculated risks (McClure 3). Self-confidence and flexibility are also a must, as these women must often reschedule work due to sick children or other family emergencies (Parlapiano and Cobe 1-2). However, when asked if they would return to the on-site workplace, these women clearly value home-based businesses in spite of any unexpected inconveniences that may temporarily sidetrack their work. In a Working At Home Women online question-of-the-week asking if they regret their decision to work at home, women were quick to respond. One woman said, "The only time I wish I wasn't working at home is when I'm running into deadlines and I'm wearing too many hats at once ... I miss being able to delegate ... but not enough to go back to work on the outside!!!!" Another was more emphatic, "NO-NO-NO-NO-NO!!! ... I am having trouble accepting any job that requires me to leave my virtual office. I am comfortable here -- I am my own boss." "[There is] never a day when I wished I was back in the workplace," says another. "My kids are the main reason I work from home, other reasons include not having to deal with office politics and running my own show!" Still another adds, "I always have a lot of ideas, I want the freedom to try them. Also the perks and salary of the people at the top compared to mine were so much larger, it didn't seem fair. And most important of all...flexibility and control are just paramount" (Working at Home Women 1-2).
Because home-based businesswomen are more isolated than on-site workers, they have found innovative ways to support each other, thanks to the Internet. Newsletters and bulletin boards provide venues for Mompreneurs to discuss ideas, offer encouragement, warn of business scams, and provide a lifelite of support and encouragement women need to seem them through the inevitable frustrations and disappointments of self-employment. In a Good Housekeeping article, Eva Pomice states,"The smartest thing any woman can do when starting a business is connect with other women doing the same thing. 'Women often start from a different confidence level than men,' says Sherrye Henry of the Small Business Administration. 'They find it enormously comforting to talk to women who have succeeded'"(73).
Home-based businesswomen may be satisfied with where they are going, but this rising phenomenon still poses questions. Researchers seem unable to agree on whether these home- based women are part of an advantaged group able to work at home for greater flexibility and time management, or a work-force being exploited for low wages, lack of benefits, and sub-standard work conditions. This fear of exploitation, especially in regard to clerical workers doing telecommuting, was widespread enough in 1986 to cause the Service Employees International Union to request a ban on this type of work (Edwards and Field-Hendrey 27). Since such businesses now flourish nationwide, those concerns appear to have been unfounded. As far as low wages are concerned, home-based workers seem to feel the flexibility, freedom, and sense of control are worth the loss of income. One Chicago businesswoman " ... could work even longer hours -- and earn more -- but she has chosen to put her family first" (Jaffe 1). The growth of organizations geared toward providing services to home-based businesses is also solving the problem of benefits; several of them now offer group health and business insurance in addition to their standard membership benefits.
Further studies may shed more light on this fast-growing labor force, but for now one thing is clear: sixteen million women have chosen not to buy into the corporate world with its drive for money as status, its 50-70 hour work weeks, and its regulation of families to a secondary -- and often unnecessary -- facet of life. These women have rejected the Supermom image as unacceptable, and are forging a new reality in which they are in control of their own lives. With the help of sophisticated new technology, they are using their innate strengths to create an environment where they can compete and succeed as businesswomen, mothers, and individuals. Mompreneurs may not change the world of work for women (and not all women would even find the home-based work world appealing), but they have shown that women have a choice. There are ways to combine personal and business lives without one consuming the other. The growing number of Mompreneurs is a success story for all women seeking to balance their multiple roles in today's complex society.
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