Long way to the top for Brisbane women

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Recruitment and training queen Sarina Russo is a rare woman at the top of the Brisbane business community.

How many of the top 50 privately owned companies in Brisbane are run by a woman? Just one.

According to the latest analysis by Brisbane Business News magazine, Sarina Russo, founder and managing director of Sarina Russo Group, is the only female at the top of the city's largest businesses.

Yesterday it was also revealed in the federal government's Australian Census of Women in Leadership report that just 8 per cent of board members on the largest 200 public companies in Australia were women.

That followed a push this year to see more women added to boards after the Australian Stock Exchange added a requirement that listed companies disclose the gender of senior managers.

The Brisbane Business News list was based on revenues and staff levels and did not include other successful Brisbane businesswomen, such as Therese Rein, whose organisations were not wholly privately owned.

Queensland University of Technology business lecturer Rebekah Russell-Bennett said there were fewer women represented in the top 50 private companies because females tended to keep their businesses smaller.

Professor Russell-Bennett said a similar number of men and women started businesses - and women tended to have a better survival rate - but men were likely to build them into million-dollar enterprises.

"Men want it to be big and to take on the world, be an enterprise," she said.

"[Typically] women start businesses for the little bit of flexibility, the little bit of control. They're sick of doing what they're doing at work and this is their way of doing something interesting.

"[If their business becomes a large corporation] it tends to be because it just grows that way."

Professor Russell-Bennett, who has recently finished a 10-year study of female entrepreneurs, said women also defined success differently to men.

They considered the benefits to their health, social life and psychological wellbeing, such as feeling empowered or in control.

Ms Russo said she founded her education and recruitment business in a "dark era" for female entrepreneurs. It was 1979 and women were in business because they had to be.

"A lot of them ended up with a business not because they were fired but because their husbands died," Ms Russo said.

"They fumbled their way through it ... they tapped that dormant entrepreneurship."

Women in those days did not dream of financial independence or anything more than marriage and all it entailed, she said.

"It was an era of darkness," Ms Russo said.

"It was very, very difficult for bank managers to relate to me [but] rather than being disappointed with bank managers, I would just slam the door and say 'I'm going to create so much wealth, I don't need to rely on banks'. I remember I felt so inadequate."

Ms Russo said the fear of returning to her job as a legal secretary gave her motivation to persevere past the feelings of doubt and the financial challenges.

She recently expanded her business to the United Kingdom, now employs 1100 people and makes $100 million per year, according to Brisbane Business News.

"To be an entrepreneur you've got to have self belief; if you don't have self belief, you're not going to survive," Ms Russo said.

She said women no longer had excuses for not achieving their goals.

"The stigma for women today in business and in power and in politics is just a complete contrast," Ms Russo said.

"In today's world there is absolutely no reason why women can't educate themselves, can't network, can't embrace bigger challenges than what they did yesterday, last month, last year...

"Let's stop blaming the guys. If you want it you can get it - that's the beauty of today's world."

And, according to Professor Russell-Bennett, women are now going for it more than ever.

In contrast to their mothers and grandmothers, today's businesswomen were striving for similar outcomes to their male competitors and taking as many risks.

"Generation Y [women] are very business oriented, very focused, very organised," Professor Russell-Bennett said.

"Younger women are more male in terms of their [business] characteristics. They want to make money."

Professor Russell-Bennett said the changing atmosphere was due to better gender equity in education.

"Forty years ago girls grew up to be secretaries, boys grew up to be the boss," she said.

"I think we're starting to see the affect of that in terms of career aspirations. [Also], less women are having children, which can be an impediment to having a high-flying career."

http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/business/long-way-to-the-top-for-brisbane-women-20101006-167om.html