International Women’s Day is March 8, but is one day really enough to celebrate and support women?
COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, and business owners have been particularly hard hit, juggling staffing challenges, lockdown regulations, and lack of government support, among other challenges. The pandemic has acutely and disproportionately affected businesses owned and led by women.
In a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit PARO Center for Women’s Enterprise, women entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries and across the country reported the challenges they faced as a result of the COVID pandemic. -19 – many of which were evident before COVID-19 but exacerbated by the pandemic.
The good news is that despite these challenges, women entrepreneurs have overwhelmingly reported that they want to maintain and grow their existing businesses. So what can governments do to help struggling women entrepreneurs now and after COVID?
Effective change happens when social supports and business policies work together. Governments must adopt comprehensive solutions when seeking to support women in business.
When asked about their top business challenges during the pandemic, women entrepreneurs flagged access to finance as a top concern. Research shows that women entrepreneurs often face more rejection of loans and investments for their businesses, and even when they do receive funding, it is often significantly lower than what men receive.
This “gender funding gap” has been acutely felt during the pandemic years, when more and more companies depend on strategic funding for their survival.
There is also a “gender subsidy gap”. Women-owned businesses are more often home-based businesses, micro-enterprises or sole proprietorships and are therefore often not eligible for government and other programs offering grants, loans and grants, which frequently target incorporated SMEs in company with employees. Women account for 37% of all self-employed Canadians, but are majority owners of only about 15% of small and medium-sized businesses with employees.
Many government investment strategies also focus on high-tech or other high-return ventures that often overlook women-led businesses, which are more concentrated in the cultural, health and social sectors.
Governments should create various funding and grant programs that include small businesses that are unincorporated or have no employees – and create a separate fund for unregistered sole proprietorships. Accessible funding opportunities could also include non-repayable portions (NRPs) on grant or loan programs. PRN-coupled loans are an effective way to provide women with high-level capital.
Financial institutions and organizations should also consider adopting a gender and development (GAD) approach so that women are not discriminated against when seeking finance and do not face obstacles to keep their business afloat. .
What about the social and cultural barriers to sustaining and growing their businesses?
Childcare was a dominant concern for female entrepreneurs, especially during the pandemic. Women have often been forced to juggle work and daycare, homeschooling or caring for the elderly during the shutdowns.
Child care is an essential social infrastructure; care work is the backbone of our economy. Just as roads and public transit support our economic growth, so do daycares.
Governments that invest in early learning and child care enable parents, especially mothers, to realize their full economic potential. The federal government’s promise to provide universal child care across the country — with agreements signed with all but Ontario so far — is a welcome step in that direction.
Women entrepreneurs have also reported reduced emotional and mental well-being and a lack of mental health support during the pandemic. Many women reported feeling “burnt out” from juggling multiple responsibilities. Several respondents also reported feeling overwhelmed by COVID-related fatigue in general and unable to maintain their sanity in a world of uncertainty.
Limited access to health services, including psychological and mental health supports, the costs of these services, and having to move away from family to access these supports were significant challenges for women entrepreneurs.
The decolonization of policies and procedures regarding support for Indigenous entrepreneurs was also raised as a concern by some survey respondents.
Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that Indigenous women are building businesses at a faster rate than non-Indigenous women, with over 23,000 businesses in Canada. Indigenous women face particularly insidious and difficult barriers: systemic racism, poverty and limited access to funding.
Governments should fund Indigenous-led non-profit organizations like the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund and women-led organizations known for supporting Indigenous women entrepreneurs, like the PARO Center for Women’s Enterprise.
Our governments should also consider stronger supplier diversity policies to make room for minority-owned business owners and create opportunities for these businesses to have the ability to secure major contracts to launch their businesses to new heights.
Women entrepreneurs are a growing and important segment of the Canadian economy. It’s time to meet their needs and help them thrive.
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