Washington — As the nation's No. 1 Mazda dealer, Enide Allison has had to bushwack a path through a male-dominated business, both here and abroad. In 1979, for example, her company's sales performance won her a trip to Hiroshima, along with other top Mazda dealers. One night the Japanese hosts gathered the dealers and their spouses in a room and said they were going to provide unique Japanese entertainment: hot baths.
``They said the wives were to go to the right, and the dealers to the left,'' she recalls. ``I took about five steps to the left, and saw the look of horror on their faces. I didn't challenge it any further. They had to do some readjusting of their thinking processes.''
But every day Mrs. Allison, who was one of 85 woman entrepreneurs honored by President Reagan last week, challenges the notion that entrepreneurship, like business in general, is a male bastion. Women own a quarter of small businesses in the United States. They are starting them at three times the rate of men and are expected to own half the small businesses by the turn of the century.
According to ``Risk to Riches,'' a just-released report on woman entrepreneurs, they own a fair share of companies in stereotypical ``female'' industries: travel agencies (54.7 percent); fashion and apparel stores (more than 40,000); cosmetics (including Estee Lauder, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Redken Laboratories); and food (with cookie queen Debbi Fields and Hamburger Hamlet founder Marilyn Lewis).
But women are making inroads into more typically male territory: They own 61,500 construction firms, 9.8 percent of energy companies, and 16 percent of the nation's manufacturing firms. They are less visible in high-tech, transportation, and on Wall Street.
In part, women start their own businesses out of frustration. ``There's been a plateauing,'' says Helen Axel, director of the Work and Family Information Center at the Conference Board in New York. ``Women have been primed for moving up, but there's only one spot at the top.''
She says that most women who have made it to the managerial level are not in the ``hard positions'' like finance, which tend to be the route to the chairmanship, but in more peripheral areas, like advertising, public relations, and human resources. And that means, she says, ``we will have male-dominated CEO [chief executive officer] ranks for another generation.''
Only three women hold the top spots in Fortune magazine's largest 1,000 companies. Two of those - Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, and Marion Sandler, who shares the CEO title of Golden West Financial Corporation with her husband - got their positions through family connections.
Limits to upward mobility and self-expression spurred Muriel Siebert to go out on her own. Though she knew every end of the stock brokerage business - research, sales, and trading - and was making lots of money, she could not get a partnership at a major brokerage house. In 1967, she became the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (for $445,000, not much less than the current $500,000 price). Today, Muriel Siebert & Co. is one of the largest discount brokers in the country.
But Wall Street is still a man's world. Only 1 percent of partners and managing directors there are female, and 48 own seats on the exchange. That creates some isolation in a profession that operates on contacts.
``I can't say I've ever really been in that closed community,'' Ms. Siebert says. ``I think I'm liked, I think I'm respected, but I've never been one of the boys.'' But she quickly points out that this has not hindered her success - it has only narrowed the routes she could take to achieve it.
Unlike Siebert, Enide Allison knew nothing about business when her husband passed on nine years ago, leaving her with a BMW and a Mazda dealership in San Jose, Calif. At first she was terrified. Then she realized that her activities - fund raising for the symphony, organizing community projects, and managing five kids at the same time - could be applied to running a business.
She immediately took out a $1 million loan, when interest rates were topping 20 percent, to expand her Mazda facility. Her younger son, who was managing the dealership, so objected that she ``had to let him go.'' (He came back a year later.) But she had ``an instinct, woman's intuition, whatever you want to call it'' that she had to expand at that time.
``Risk taking is a masculine trait,'' she says. ``But the feminine trait is knowing at a gut level when you should take the risk.''
After three years, she became the country's top Mazda dealer, and now has a $61.6 million business.
She and others say that women entrepreneurs can succeed by leveraging, rather than ignoring, their feminine qualities.
Take Maryles Casto, who opened her own travel agency in 1975 with $1,500. What gave her a competitive edge, and allowed her to expand into a $35 million business within 10 years, was being being sensitive to what customers really needed, and not just what they thought was adequate.
When she worked as a travel agent for another company, she realized that executive secretaries didn't understand what their bosses had to go through when they traveled. She wanted to have travel seminars for them, but her employer dismissed the idea.
She left. After opening Casto Travel, she started taking secretaries to the nearby San Francisco airport, showing them where the smoking and nonsmoking seats were, how food was prepared, and so on. The executives found they were traveling more comfortably, and she built up an allegiance among Silicon Valley companies. Travel seminars have since caught on within the industry.
Employees have to be treated with equal sensitivity, she says. ``In Silicon Valley, they lay off people left and right, and yet they wonder why they don't have the loyalties of their employees,'' she observes. ``They wonder why the Japanese are taking over. The Japanese care for their people; our businessmen don't. It's always the bottom line.''
These entrepreneurs, as well as sociologists and economists, say that the keys to success are, in the final analysis, genderless. ``You have to decide what you want to do and go for it,'' Allison says. ``That's not really masculine or feminine.''