Monday, February 20, 2012


If you were asked to name any famous female entrepreneurs, who would you mention? Laura Ashley, Anita Roddick, Estee Lauder, Deborah Meaden?

Compare this to the long list of male entrepreneurs you could name at the same time. Yet, as the latest report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) team shows, women are making a real impact on entrepreneurship across the World.

According to the latest data, more than 104 million women aged between 18-64 years old were actively engaged in starting and running new business ventures in 2010 in 59 countries. In addition, another 83 million women were running established businesses demonstrating the real impact they have on the development of enterprising economies across the World.

Despite this, the rate of entrepreneurial activity by men remains far higher. In fact, the study shows that women are less likely to consider entrepreneurship than men and when they do start a business, they are more likely to be motivated by necessity rather than an opportunity in the market-place.

Indeed, during the last eight years, the GEM study has shown that women’s perceptions about entrepreneurial opportunities have declined in most developed economies. Additionally, women are more likely to be discouraged from considering starting a business due to fear of failure and less likely to believe they have the skills to start and run a new venture.

As a result, it is not surprising that the growth expectations of women-run businesses are lower than for those run by men with twice as many men as women expected to add 20 or more employees to their companies.

Why is the case?

Much of the research in this area has tended to focus on gender differences in the access to, and use of, entrepreneurial finance, which is key to the birth and growth of new businesses. For example, studies have shown that female owned businesses tend to start with lower levels of overall capitalization than that used by male-owned firms. They also have lower ratios of debt finance and are less likely to use private equity or venture capital.

So are women turned off starting a new business because they have different perceptions to men, especially in terms of accessing finance?

That is the question that I have attempted to answer recently along with my colleagues Dr Caleb Kwong and Dr Piers Thompson from the University of Essex and Cardiff Metropolitan University respectively. Drawing on data from 49,107 individuals questioned as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) adult population survey undertaken in the UK, the research examined “Differences in perceptions of access to finance between potential male and female entrepreneurs”.

Not surprisingly given previous studies, the results from the study confirmed that women are more likely to perceive that they are financially constrained than their male counterparts. Additionally, the research found that gender plays an influential role in preventing potential female entrepreneurs from starting a new business when no other barriers exist. In fact, the models developed found that women are around 10 percent more likely than men to perceive finance to be the only barrier to entrepreneurship. Those are the findings but what are the implications for policymakers?

Certainly, the analysis suggests that there is a role for support bodies to develop specific mechanisms to deal with this issue. For example, the availability of start-up finance from various sources could be marketed by different support organisations to encourage women to attempt to obtain the necessary finance rather than being discouraged at the first hurdle. This includes the need to increase both financial awareness and literacy so that potential female entrepreneurs are aware of all financial options open to them as well as increasing their ability to utilise those funding sources they have knowledge of. These should not only emerge from public bodies and women's stakeholders groups, but also from the private sector and community-based organisations, such as credit unions, which have greater outreach abilities.

The study also found a stronger effect from education in reducing these perceptions of financial constraints for women. This implies that female graduates could provide a source of potential entrepreneurs who are less likely to perceive obtaining finance to be a problem and are more positively positioned to be capable of acquiring external funding. Given this, there is no reason as to why higher education institutions could not play a vital role in supporting the development of female entrepreneurs.

For example, Welsh universities could increase the level of female entrepreneurial activity by advertising the benefits and potential of entrepreneurship as a career. This could be undertaken through cross faculty entrepreneurship education programmes which address the needs of all the student population rather than just business students. More importantly, they could provide enterprise initiatives that are specifically targeted towards the specific needs of potential female entrepreneurs within the student population.

Recent research has shown us that new firms create almost all new net jobs in the economy and yet women are, as this study suggests, facing specific barriers which may disincentives them from taking part in entrepreneurial activity. Certainly, if we can get more women to consider establishing a new venture, then it can only benefit the Welsh economy at a time when we need every job we can get.