The Apprentice: good or bad for women entrepreneurs?

July 19, 2013 by
Filed under: Enterprise 

Over-confident contestants in pin-stripe suits. Finger pointing tycoons. Birds-eye views of London skyscrapers. Authoritative music. Yes, it’s The Apprentice, which sadly came to a close last week with its TV finale.

While the show usually passes me by without notice, this time round I couldn’t help but pay attention. There’s no doubt it received more limelight than usual, hovering around the BBC iPlayer homepage and finding its way into TV reviews.

The apparent reason? Because the show has two female contests battling it out for the £250,000 golden ticket to entrepreneur-dom.

This shouldn’t be a novelty but it is. Analysis undertaken on behalf of RBS show that men are twice as likely as women to start up in business (see the graph below). Only 26 per cent of self-employed people are women, and this is despite them making up a growing proportion of the UK labour force.


Part of the reason for this under-representation stems from a lack of ‘entrepreneurial capital’. The aforementioned research (which is worth a read) indicates that many women lack the skills/knowledge, financial resource and access to networks that are necessary to start a business. But perhaps an even greater cause of low start-up rates among women is the dearth of female role models in the business world.

Which brings us back to The Apprentice. Is the TV show helping or hurting efforts to boost entrepreneurship among women? In theory, having an all-female final should do wonders. The show is watched by millions of young girls thinking about what they want to do and be in later life. But my fear is that, as is so often the case, the reality is a different story.

The worry with the Apprentice is that it tends to promote a certain ‘use’ of entrepreneurship at the expense of others that are much more common and valuable to women. Most of those taking part in The Apprentice are in business for the fame and the fortune. In practice, however, lots of women (and men!) become entrepreneurs because it gives them, among other things, the freedom to look after children, or the space to act upon a great new idea. In fact, only half of women who are self-employed even call themselves ‘business owners’.

So our concern with The Apprentice should not just relate to who is taking part (male or female) but rather why it is the participants are there in the first place.* If we want more women to start up in business, we need to begin showcasing female entrepreneurs who are able to demonstrate how entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for achieving all of life’s objectives – achieving freedom, acting upon ideas and, yes, making money too.

* Witness Social Enterprise UK’s call upon BBC producers to include more social entrepreneurs in their shows.


  • Emma Gwillim Life By Design

    Good or bad? I’m undecided. I have been fascinated this series, particularly with the ladies that made the final three BUT I do struggle with the one-size-fits-all style of entrepreneurship that The Apprentice showcases. As you say, for many women the motivation for entrepreneurship is freedom, flexibility and, the bit that seems to be missing, doing something that feels truly authentic…. NOT just something that is all about profit margins and “being good at sales”. For many women, the money is a driver, but topped by being able to express their unique talents and create a business on their own terms. Having to trade every waking hour and sacrificing family time to be an “entrepreneur” is out-dated… the internet has changed that. I wish the finalists good luck with their ventures…. Let’s hear it for the girls.

  • Dr Barbra Wallace

    Yes, as Benedict notes, many women (and men) who become entrepreneurs value the opportunity, have caring responsibilities, whilst wishing to use their creativity and provide an income.

    As Emma comments, the rapidly growing number of web-based businesses makes this a more viable option.

    Too often, on programmes, such as Dragon’s Den,
    micro- ventures are dismissed, as not being ‘real’ businesses, with phrases such as ‘not scalable’, or ‘it’s just a lifestyle business’ being bandied about.

    What is required to encourage women to become entrepreneurs is not just higher visibility of role models that portray alternative approaches (a definite must), but also promotion of more creative ways of thinking about, talking
    about, and doing business that can accommodate micro-business, freedom and flexible working patterns – a discourse that does not necessarily revolve around profit-maximisation and growth.

  • Amanda Brett

    At last ….. the final paragraph says it all. “If we want more women to start up in business, we need to begin showcasing female entrepreneurs who are able to demonstrate how entrepreneurship can be a vehicle for achieving all of life’s objectives – achieving freedom, acting upon ideas and, yes, making money too”. The Apprentice, although good viewing, really is enough to put most women off of entrepreneurship. Success does not belong to the one size fits all portrayed in the series and it would be a welcome change to see a TV series championing the girls who have made good. Come on BBC be brave and bring it on! Let’s give our young women the role models they can aspire to.