Last month, a campaign was launched to increase the number of women entrepreneurs in the UK by 100,000 over the next decade.
Everywoman, the largest female business community in the UK, has linked up with the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)'s Real Life Entrepreneurs Campaign to help encourage more women to set up new ventures in the UK.
Their argument is simple, namely that an extra 150,000 start-ups would be created per year if women started businesses at the same rate as men. This is not surprising as, according to the last Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report for the UK, female early-stage entrepreneurial activity in 2010 was 4 per cent of the adult population as compared to 9 per cent for men i.e. the ratio of female to male early-stage entrepreneurial activity was 44 per cent.
As well as a focus on encouraging more women, the FSB's campaign will also promote enterprise amongst young people, the over-50s, those with disabilities, ex-armed forces personnel and those who are currently living on benefits.
This strategy by the FSB should be widely applauded but for those of us who have been involved in entrepreneurship in Wales, it has a sense of real deja vu, given that, over a decade ago, there was a particular focus within the Entrepreneurship Action Plan for Wales on encouraging more starts-ups amongst women, minority ethnic groups, social enterprise and young people.
In fact, I remember that, thanks to the promotional campaigns managed by the Welsh Development Agency and the various start-ups programmes targeted at women, female entrepreneurship in Wales in 2004 was at three quarters that of the male entrepreneurial activity, one of the best gender balances in the whole World. By focusing on issues such as blocked mobility in the workplace and the issue of the so-called glass ceilings, more women in Wales were encouraged to start their own business.
Since the demise of the Entrepreneurship Action Plan in 2005, the targeting of enterprise support towards women has also died a death. In fact, there is now a policy by the Welsh Government that all new businesses are exactly the same and, as a result, there is no specific support to encourage more women to start their own businesses.
Indeed, there is an expectation that women should conform to male behaviours despite overwhelming academic evidence that female experience and practice can differ significantly to those of male entrepreneurs.
For example, there is strong evidence that women start businesses with fewer resources, restricted access to business clients, and slower and less reliable delivery of orders from suppliers. In terms of finance, there is also a widespread belief that women face greater difficulties in obtaining funding for a business start than their male counterparts, with female entrepreneurs starting off with lower levels of cash in the business.
Unlike what is happening in Wales, research shows that enterprise training courses should focus on addressing the weaker financial position that many women start from, given the reluctance of women to take on debt at start-up, which has long term implications for the development of their business. In addition, there should be greater use of training materials that feature successful women entrepreneurs in a variety of industries. Such role models expand the horizons and stimulate the aspirations of potential female entrepreneurs.
Women are a key part of any enterprise economy, and with female unemployment at its highest for twenty three years, there could, and should, be a focus on encouraging greater numbers of female run businesses if Wales is to emerge from the economic downturn as a more entrepreneurial nation.
So what could the Welsh Government do?
According to the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group, policymakers could introduce a number of measures to realise the multi-billion pound opportunity which growth from female-led enterprises can bring to the economy. These include the appointment of a women’s enterprise champion within government to raise awareness of economic benefits of encouraging more women to start and grow businesses. There should also be investment in business growth programmes for existing female entrepreneurs and doubling the number of women entrepreneurs using mentors and/or networking opportunities by promoting activities amongst networking groups. Finally, given the importance of higher and further education in economic development, government should ensure that current university and college entrepreneurship support is attractive and useful to young women, closing the gap between the numbers of young men and young women starting businesses.
Whereas very little is being done in Wales, the same is not true elsewhere in the UK. For example, a new £5.5m Women’s International Centre for Economic Development in Liverpool has just opened to provide a range of services focused on women’s start-up businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises. This includes ’incubation’ units for new and high growth women enterprises and an international research and knowledge centre focused on women’s enterprise and wider economic development issues.
The first woman to hold the business and economic development portfolio in the Welsh Government has hit the ground running with the creation of taskforces which are examining everything from micro-businesses to city regions to business rates.
Given this, isn’t it time also for this government to also look closely at the massive entrepreneurial potential that exists amongst half of the Welsh population and do something positive to encourage more female entrepreneurs in Wales?