Is a formerly benign business term being used to undermine female entrepreneurs? You bet, says Dotty Winters.
Illustration by Claire Jones.
Like it or loathe it, the word “mumpreneur” is a now an inescapable feature of modern business. First used in a 1998 article in Practical Parenting – and first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011 – it was coined to describe a specific phenomenon. That is, mothers who during (or soon after) their maternity leave developed a product or service based on their experiences of parenting, and launched a business based on this idea.
Key to this initial phenomenon was the inventiveness of these mothers; identifying real world problems affecting mums and creating innovative solutions to bring to market. It may be that through parenting they had identified a market gap for a product, or that they had opted to move to self-employment in order to balance their caring responsibilities.
A 2012 study of UK mothers by The Big Bang UK Young Scientists & Engineers Fair reported that 39% of those surveyed were applying their skills and ingenuity to make money, with one in six entering the patent process.
This trend toward innovation has rightly been celebrated. And yet, over time, the definition of “mumpreneur” has morphed to become synonymous with “female entrepreneur who also has children”. The current Collins Dictionary definition is: “a woman who combines running a business enterprise with looking after her children.” There are a number of reasons why this wider definition is problematic.
Firstly, female entrepreneurs who go on to have children are now termed mumpreneurs, even though their pre-existing business is not related to their role as mothers. It’s bad enough that your new mummy friends know you only as “Josh’s Mum” without clients, peers and colleagues redefining you on the basis of your offspring.
Then there’s the air of condescension. Fathers invent stuff for parents too, but we don’t call them “dadventors”. Outside the context of the specific phenomenon it was created for, the term becomes a patronising pat on the head, not a celebration of a new wave of inventiveness.
Despite the huge success of some mumpreneurs, the term still carries associations with small, home-based and part time businesses. These implications undermine the large number of successful, large and full-time enterprises and can affect people’s decisions to buy from or work with them.
What’s more, many female entrepreneurs provide the primary household income and not, as the media might have it, a secondary, pocket-money income.
Then there’s the word itself. I find it cutesy, twee and utterly condescending. While it’s important to acknowledge that women carry a disproportionate responsibility for childcare in the home, I believe that creating terms that imply it’s somehow more of an achievement for women to work and parent than it is for men only serves to widen the gender divide.
I’ve had my own battles with the word. A few years ago, a business I run received an award for the work we do to support business mums (note: not an award for being a business mum). In a press interview about the award I was asked whether I have children, and said I did. Since that date, almost every piece of hard-won press about my business refers to me as a mumpreneur: even in publications I’ve previously asked to correct this error. Clients who’ve seen this coverage have responded with comments such as “You work a lot for someone with children” (judge much?); “I’m surprised you have kids” and “I thought you worked full time?” (I do).
I’m a fan of the inventiveness of the mumpreneur phenomenon, but believe the tendency to label all business mums in this way is reductive. It narrows the debate and is very much a step backwards. The over-application of the term diminishes the efforts of working parents, female entrepreneurs who don’t have kids, and even “true” mumpreneurs. Sure, we could attempt to reclaim the word and fight to have it used properly. Or perhaps we could start discussing successful businesses without resorting to hopelessly out of date, gender-specific labels?
It’s time to accept that a term coined to celebrate the ingenuity of a new wave of working mothers has morphed into yet another example of everyday sexism.
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.