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Women forge ahead

TODAY is International Women’s Day, a day when women celebrate the achievements of their gender – including the world of commerce and industry, where women now own a significant number of Australian businesses.

In the past century, West Australian women have come a long way since they won the right to vote in 1900. From forging strong careers in every profession, including areas such as law and medicine, women are increasingly discontent with working for others.

Instead, more women have begun to flex their financial muscles and make their own mark on the world of business.

New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show women own 35 per cent of all small businesses.

And this figure is predicted to rise with women starting up businesses at a significantly higher rate than their male counterparts.

Business and Professional Women WA Division vice-president Joy Whitfield attributed this trend to better education systems and a changed society.

“More girls are gaining and accepting places into tertiary education institutions,” Mrs Whitfield said.

“Younger women are now very well educated and are not prepared to spend their lives at home.

“They want to be a part of the business world and they want to do it on their own terms, so many turn to their own small business.”

Maud Edmiston is one Perth woman who created a small culinary empire on her own terms.

Known fondly as Miss Maud to the WA public, Mrs Edmiston has brought her special style of Swedish cooking and décor to shopping centres around the State.

“The idea came when I was walking through Perth with my mother and two children and we were looking for a place to get a cup of coffee and a cake, and we couldn’t find one,” Mrs Edmiston recalls.

“I was stimulated by the idea, so I began looking for a place and there was an empty one in the Carillion Arcade.”

After the success of the first pastryhouse came the hotel, restaurant and bakery on the corner of Murray and Pier streets and then a pastryhouse in Karrinyup Shopping Centre.

“In the beginning it was actually quite simple, I only had just one shop, but to develop a system yourself and verbalise it and train others, well, it’s very exciting,” she said.

But it was not always as sweet as pie. Mrs Edmiston on more than one occasion saw the negative side of business, especially in the stock-market crash of 1987.

Mrs Edmiston has witnessed the steady growth of women in business first hand since she started up in 1971.

“When I first started the staff training programs I was lucky if there was another woman in the room,” she said.

“But now there are women wherever you go.

“In reality, the development of home technologies and social support structures has enabled responsible women to have a business and a good home too.”

Mrs Edmiston does not believe her gender has ever held her back, and is somewhat sceptical of the “glass ceiling” theory.

“I have never felt disadvantaged in business because I am a woman,” she said.

“I find the perception of the glass ceiling is actually sometimes stronger than the glass ceiling itself, if the perception goes, then so does the ceiling.”

Dr Penny Flett is another who has never let a mere glass ceiling stop her.

Along with being the WA president of international women’s organisation Zonta, Dr Flett is the chief executive officer of the Brightwater Care Group.

A self-proclaimed champion of the aged care issue, Dr Flett is determined to establish quality facilities for the elderly.

“It is not something viewed as a high profile area, but it is a growth area,” Dr Flett said.

“My generation is ageing and it bothers me that no one, it seems to me, is thinking about how this will affect society.”

Her efforts in this area won her the accolade of1998 Telstra Australian Businesswoman of the Year.

Dr Flett believes that input from both men and women is crucial to the success of any project.

“Men do many things but they are not complete unless a woman’s work has been added into the equation,” she said.

“More and more men are understanding that a joint effort will produce a great result.”

And while there has been resistance to her ideas, on account of her gender, Dr Flett laughs off the notion that it could ever stop here.

“Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes not so subtle,” she said.

“But I just work out ways of achieving what I want regardless of any obstacles.”

Women’s organisations around the State are holding a number of functions to mark the special day.

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