By Rosalind Lockyer
We are a few days past International Women’s Day—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 women-owned and -run businesses.
In a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, women entrepreneurs from a wide range of sectors and from across the country flagged the challenges they have faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic—many of which were evident before COVID-19 but exacerbated by the pandemic.
The good news is that despite these challenges, women entrepreneurs overwhelmingly signalled they want to sustain and grow their existing businesses. So, what can governments do to help struggling women entrepreneurs now and post-COVID?
Effective change occurs when social supports and business policies work together. Governments need to embrace "wraparound" solutions when looking to bolster women in business.
When asked what their major business challenges were during the pandemic, women entrepreneurs flagged access to financing as a major concern. Research shows that women entrepreneurs often face more rejections for loans and investments for their businesses, and even when they do receive funding, it is often significantly less than what men receive.
This "gender financing gap" has been felt acutely during the pandemic years, when more businesses are reliant on strategic financing for survival.
There’s also a "gender grant gap".
Women-owned businesses are more often home-based, microbusinesses, or sole proprietorships and thus aren’t often eligible for government and other programs offering subsidies, loans, and grants, which frequently target incorporated SMEs with employees. Women make up 37 percent of all self-employed Canadians but are the majority owners of only around 15 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses with employees.
Many government investment strategies also focus on high-tech or other large-scale-return businesses which often leave women-led businesses, more concentrated in the cultural, health, and social sectors, out in the cold.
Governments need to create diverse financing and grant programs that include small businesses that aren’t incorporated or don’t have employees—and create separate funds for unregistered, sole-proprietorship businesses. Accessible funding opportunities could also include nonrepayable portions (NRPs) on grant/loan programs. Loans paired with NRPs are an effective way to provide women with high-level capital.
Financial institutions and organizations should also consider adopting a gender and development approach (GAD) so that women are not discriminated against when seeking financing and wouldn’t have to face barriers to keep their businesses afloat.
What about social and cultural barriers to maintaining and growing their businesses?
Childcare was a dominant concern for female entrepreneurs, especially during the pandemic. Women were often forced to juggle work with daycare, homeschooling, and/or elder care during the lockdowns.
Childcare is essential social infrastructure; it is the care work that is the backbone of our economy. Just as roads and transit support our economic growth, so, too, does childcare.
Governments investing in early learning and childcare enables parents, particularly mothers, to achieve their full economic potential. The federal government’s promise to provide universal childcare across the country—with signed deals with all but Ontario so far—is a welcome step in this direction.
Women entrepreneurs also flagged reduced emotional/mental well-being and a lack of support for mental health during the pandemic. Many women reported feeling “burnt out” from juggling multiple responsibilities. Several respondents also reported feeling overwhelmed by COVID fatigue in general and unable to maintain their mental health in a world of uncertainty.
Limited access to health services, including psychological/mental health supports, the costs of these services, and taking time away from family to gain access to these supports were significant challenges for women entrepreneurs.
Decolonizing policies and procedures around support for Indigenous entrepreneurs was also flagged as a concern by some survey respondents.
Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that Indigenous women are starting businesses at a faster rate than non-Indigenous women, with more than 23,000 businesses in Canada. Indigenous women face particularly insidious and challenging barriers: systemic racism, poverty, and poor access to finance.
Governments should fund not-for-profit Indigenous-led organizations like the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund and women-led organizations known for their support of Indigenous women entrepreneurs, like the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise.
Our governments should also consider stronger supplier diversity policies to make space for minority-identified business owners and create opportunities for these businesses to have an opportunity to procure large contracts to launch their businesses to new heights.
Female entrepreneurs are a growing and important segment of the Canadian economy. It’s time we supported their needs and helped them flourish.