Is the enterprise gender gap narrowing?

Data reveals that the enterprise gender gap is narrowing, but men are still twice as likely as women to start a business overall. What does this mean for gender parity?

Both the US and UK have roughly the same proportion of men in entrepreneurship, but women in the US are twice as likely to be entrepreneurially active than women in the UK. It’s estimated that in the UK alone, if every single woman who wanted to start her own business had the support to make that possible, it would immediately produce 340,000 new businesses and support 425,000 new jobs. So what’s the hold up?

According to new research from Aston University, the gap is narrowing considerably. Using data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), the research shows that the number of new female entrepreneurs in the UK has risen far faster than men in the past decade, which could spell the potential end of the enterprise gap in a few years’ time.

GEM data shows that between 2003-6 and 2013-16, the proportion of women that went into business rose by 45 per cent, compared to just 27 per cent among men. Overall, however, men are still nearly twice as likely to be entrepreneurs (10.4 per cent of men versus 5.5 per cent of women).

At the global level, the UK’s rates of female early-stage entrepreneurship remain well below many other advanced economies. Canada has the highest absolute rate of female early-stage entrepreneurs at 11.6 per cent, while Spain has the closest male to female ratio of any developed economy, with 74 Spanish women entrepreneurs for every 100 men, compared to 53 for the UK.

Many developing economies display even higher rates of female entrepreneurship. In Ecuador, 31.9 per cent of women are entrepreneurs, while other Latin American and South East Asian nations dominate the top spots. Indonesia and Brazil are the only GEM-participant countries where there are more female entrepreneurs than male.

The GEM report is an annual look at a range of entrepreneurship indicators, coordinated by Professor Mark Hart of Aston Business School in Birmingham and Professor Jonathan Levie of the University of Strathclyde Business School. It grouped UK regional entrepreneurship rates over several years to produce more robust, representative samples than individual years alone allow.

Dr Karen Bonner, senior researcher at Aston Business School, said the reasons behind the continuing disparity between male and female entrepreneurship rates were complex. “On the one hand, we could point to different societal expectations, with women still taking on the bulk of unpaid caring roles and entrepreneurship still stereotyped as a ‘male’ career choice in our wider culture,” she said.

“When asked why they started their business women are significantly more likely to cite ‘greater flexibility for my personal and family life’ and the desire for ‘freedom to adapt my own approach to work’ than men. But despite these differences, and controlling for other factors like sector, age and start-up capital, both men and women display similar levels of ambition when it comes to growing their businesses.”

“We also observe a tendency for women generally to be more risk-averse which may make them self-select out of entrepreneurship, particularly in places where there are ‘safer’ employment options that allow them to work more flexibly around caring responsibilities,” Bonner added.

Three female entrepreneurs from three very different sectors talk about starting up and swimming against the current to stand out.

Whisky is a woman’s world

Amy Seton is making her mark in the traditionally male-dominated world of whisky.

With a 10-year career in events marketing under her belt, Seton initially planned to launch her own food and drink events business, but chose to specialise in the ‘water of life’ following huge enthusiasm from customers.

Her company, The Birmingham Whisky Club, is now in its sixth year, with Seton hosting up to 10 tasting events every month and organising the city’s annual Whisky Festival featuring 300 varieties of the golden spirit. The concept has been so successful she’s now expanding to Bristol and has eyes on other UK cities including London.

But despite her extensive knowledge, Seton admits she sometimes found it hard to be taken seriously at first. “People are interested in the idea of a younger woman working in a culturally male world,” said Seton. “But the fact that it’s still a subject to be talked about sits slightly uncomfortably with me. Even after hosting tasting sessions, I will still occasionally get asked ‘do you actually like whisky?’ which I don’t think a man would get.”

Since starting her own firm, Seton has seen other friends embrace entrepreneurship as job security becomes an increasingly outmoded idea. “The way people are seeing work has changed,” she said. “People are more flexible these days and not willing to endure a cultural setting that doesn’t suit them. Companies that are very entrenched will lose people to business.”

She feels the enduring disparity between male and female entrepreneurship rates could be tackled by greater availability of mentoring schemes and start-up finance. “I’m sure I wouldn’t have made half the mistakes and propelled the business more quickly if I’d been able to get advice from people who are older and wiser,” added Seton.

She’s now taking the bull by the horns herself, establishing a lunch club for female business owners in Birmingham to network and share experience with like-minded entrepreneurs from a range of sectors. And being based in the city’s creative hub of Digbeth means she has benefited from being part of a growing cluster of ambitious new firms. Office space in Birmingham is relatively cheap, while the city’s central location means business trips to Leeds, Manchester or London can be easily accomplished in a day.

Her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is straightforward: “If you have an idea and you’re confident about it, it’s about grit and time and not giving up.”

Selling macaroons to the French

Rosie Ginday’s business Miss Macaroon is combining sales success with a social mission to help disadvantaged people gain new skills.

The firm is the only one in the UK that can make the mouth-watering almond-flavoured treat in Pantone colours – making them a hit among corporate customers.

Since starting up in 2011, the Birmingham-based entrepreneur has offered intensive work-based training to 26 unemployed people – including ex-offenders, care leavers and victims of domestic violence. Six of them have been taken on as employees, and five have moved on to mainstream employment, while others have found jobs with Ginday’s wider network.

Late last year, 33-year-old Ginday launched her first macaroon and prosecco bar in Birmingham city centre and is now looking at other UK cities. A trained pastry chef with experience at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Ginday is even taking her passion for macaroons back to their French roots – by selling them to customers in Paris and Cannes.

Coming from the “very male dominated” world of top kitchens, Ginday says the split among social enterprises like her business is close to 50/50. She thinks the surge in female entrepreneurship over the past decade is unsurprising.

“With the effects of austerity and wages not growing in line with inflation to cover living costs, people feel they’ve got a better chance doing something by themselves. For me, it was about doing something I’m passionate about and learning new things. As a business owner you’re constantly having to do that and improve.”

Ginday has taken full advantage of new private sector led mentoring schemes for business owners, having won a place on the prestigious Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme and NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark network. Last year, she was named EY Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year for the Midlands.

“Having access to peer and expert mentors is so important, because you can ask them silly questions rather than floundering in the dark trying to search for the right answers,” said Ginday. “And developing a network of like-minded business owners is crucial, because it can be lonely and invariably quite stressful, so it’s good to have people who know what you’re going through.”

Burying fears led to business success

A series of “unsatisfactory” family funerals prompted Carrie Weekes to set up a bespoke funeral service firm with business partner Fran Glover.

Focussing on offering choice, and ensuring people are aware of options such as ‘natural burial’ in peaceful, woodland locations, their firm A Natural Undertaking aims to make the process of saying goodbye to a loved one a more meaningful and memorable occasion. Dispensing with the ‘Victoriana’ of traditional ceremonies, Glover and Weekes say their service offers a more personalised and bespoke approach for families coping with a loss.

Glover’s background in corporate marketing and Weekes’ experience in the social enterprise sector have both proved important for the new venture, now in its third year. “We’ve aimed to embed the idea of having a positive impact on our environment and a strong sense of social values,” said Weekes. “I think we’re showing that you don’t have to follow that very cut-throat, Apprentice-style approach. You can do business differently and still be very successful.”

Both in their 40s and with school-aged children, the pair believe juggling a business with the demands of a family can make it hard for some women to take the plunge, especially lone parents. But the increased visibility of female entrepreneurs and the advent of social media making networking and advice more accessible than ever before have helped to level the playing field for female entrepreneurs, they added.

“I think what some women need to understand is that you don’t necessarily need loads of money to start up or risk your home in a rash, ‘get-rich-quick’ approach,” said Glover. “It’s a process that can be done slowly and sustainably. We got a £10,000 start-up loan which we’ve now paid back and that was enough to get us going. It’s about feeling that it’s not a big, scary thing – it’s a normal, ordinary thing that people do all the time.”

After seeing strong growth over the past year, the pair are now looking to secure new premises in Birmingham so they can continue their expansion and create more jobs.

They’ve also embraced learning opportunities. Weekes is coming to the end of the Aston Programme for Small Business Growth, a workshop-based course for business owners in the West Midlands. “It’s been really helpful in enabling us to focus on the notion that we are a successful business and will continue to be if we think strategically and keep working hard,” said Weekes. “In that sense it’s been a big confidence boost – it’s about taking stock, appreciating what you’ve done already and seeing what more you can do.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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