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02/12/2016

Enterprise ‘ambassadors’ aim to bridge EU gender gap

Social Europe & Jobs

Enterprise ‘ambassadors’ aim to bridge EU gender gap

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The European Network of Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadors was launched in Stockholm yesterday (5 October), with the aim of “bridging the gender gap” and increasing the number of women starting businesses in Europe.

Launched by the European Commission, the EU network is based on similar groups in various countries including Sweden, where the government has already appointed 880 ambassadors to provide encouragement to others and relate their unique stories of building up their own companies. 

At the launch event, two female entrepreneurs told their “success stories” and outlined why they believe starting up a business can be an empowering and rewarding career choice for women. 

UK entrepreneur Nadine Hill, who runs The Dream PA company which provides 24-hour “virtual business receptionist services,” praised the ambassador initiative, arguing that it will help to “create a culture of enterprise” where young women understand that setting up your own business is a career choice where you can “really make things happen”. 

Likewise, Kicki Theander, a Swedish woman who in 2007 set up Middagsfrid, a company that has enjoyed rapid success delivering the ingredients and recipes for healthy home-cooked meals, told the assembled ambassadors that “female entrepreneurship has made a big difference in Sweden,” and that women who set up their own businesses often achieve greater professional satisfaction as well as a better work-life balance. 

Indeed, Sweden’s equality policies are among the EU’s most aggressively progressive. The Nordic country has set the ambitious target of 40% of all business start-ups in 2010 being set up by female entrepreneurs, according to Jöran Hägglund, state secretary at the Swedish Enterprise Ministry. 

Transposing such ambitious targets to the European level may prove more difficult, however. European Commission SME official Francoise Le Bail explained that because of the huge differences between EU member states, achieving common standards and goals is very difficult. 

She did note, nevertheless, that certain difficulties and recurring problems persist across borders. For example, Le Bail explained that women are far more likely to ask their friends or family for an initial business investment, and are far more reluctant to seek loans from banks. “We need to change this,” she said. 

Swedish professor Carin Holmquist of the Stockholm School of Economics went a step further, arguing that promoting female entrepreneurship will only succeed as part of a broad, holistic approach towards gender equality. One Scandinavian study shows that women’s on-average lower pay in all sectors is the single biggest factor preventing more women from starting their own businesses. 

As a result, said Holmquist, women cannot accumulate the capital required to start their own businesses as quickly as men. But the Swedish professor was also resoundingly hopeful about the prospects for bridging the “gender gap,” claiming that “if you consider the many hindrances facing women, it’s quite remarkable how many female entrepreneurs there actually are starting businesses”. 

Swedish Vice-Premier and Enterprise Minister Maud Olofsson also adopted a positive attitude, challenging the EU to match the equality goals of the Swedish government. “We are confident that our ambitions will be mirrored in future SME-related policies at EU level,” she said. 

European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs Vladimír Špidla indicated that such ambitions were at the heart of EU equality policy, observing that currently, only 30% of EU entrepreneurs are women, a situation which “must change if we are to compete successfully on the global market”. 

Specifically, he noted that that the current proposal for a directive on equality in self-employed activities was part of the EU’s desire to “make change happen”. 

“Female entrepreneurship is important for the prosperity of our society,” he concluded. 

Positions

Swedish Vice-Premier and Enterprise Minister Maud Olofsson told the female entrepreneurs that "we must work to change attitudes about who an entrepreneur is". 

She challenged the EU to match the equality goals of the Swedish government, stating: "We are confident that our ambitions will be mirrored in future SME-related policies at EU level." She praised the ambassadors, who had come from all over Europe to Stockholm, telling them "I'm so proud of you". 

Francoise Le Bail, deputy director-general of the European Commission's enterprise department, told the ambassadors that women are often said to be more cautious when it comes to setting up a new business. For example, women are more likely than men to keep their old job when they start a business, and women's start-ups generally use less capital than men's. 

Furthermore, Le Bail noted that women are far more likely to go their friends or family for their initial business investment, and are far more reluctant to seek loans from banks. "We need to change this," she said, though she added that women's enterprises tended to be more conservative in their "slow and steady" growth, and that such prudence might have been useful in the current crisis. "If more women had been in charge of banks during the crisis, perhaps things would have been different." 

In his keynote address, EU Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Vladimír Špidla told the ambassadors that "female entrepreneurship is important for the prosperity of our society". Observing that currently only 30% of EU entrepreneurs are women, Špidla said that "this situation must change if we are to compete successfully on the global market". 

Specifying the "ambitious framework" of the 2006 roadmap for equality between women and men, the commissioner said that gender equality in both the public and private sectors is "a top priority of the EU," and added that the current proposal for a directive on equality in self-employed activities reflects the EU's desire to "make change happen". 

"We are counting on your initiative and enthusiasm" to achieve these goals, he told the ambassadors. 

Background

There are 23 million small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe, with an average workforce of five people per company. These SMEs represent two-thirds of the total employment and 99.8% of all enterprises in the European Union. 

According to the European Commission, the entrepreneurial potential of women constitutes an "underdeveloped source of economic growth and of new jobs". At present, on average, women make up 30% of the entrepreneurs in the EU, but "often face greater difficulties than men in starting up businesses and in accessing finance and training," says the EU executive. 

As part of its ongoing strategy to increase the number of female entrepreneurs in the EU, the Commission launched a 'European Network of Female Entrepreneurship Ambassadors' yesterday. These will share experiences, compare notes and act as role models to inspire women to become entrepreneurs across the 27-member EU. 

Further Reading