Time for a European 50-50 Act?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In 1988, the United States' Women's Business Ownership Act enabled women for the first time to have a level playing field when it came to setting up in business. Flo Clucas makes the case for a similar act for Europe.

Flo Clucas OBE was elected President of the ALDE Party Gender Equality network on a two-year mandate at the Party Congress in Dublin in November 2012. She  is and advisor on EU Funding to the Mayor of Liverpool.

Jobs, businesses, economic activity and all that it means are vital to Europe's future. Ideas on how rapid improvement in all of those areas can be made is taxing minds across the Union.

Are there any lessons that can be learnt from elsewhere to speed up the much needed and desired economic growth? Perhaps there are and from an unexpected source.

2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the United States' Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988. It was a landmark piece of legislation as, for the first time it enabled women to have a level playing field when it came to setting up in business. Astonishingly, it had been the case that in many states, no woman could start a business without a man to sign for her to do so!

The Act was brought in under Ronald Regan's Presidency and through it, a number of barriers to women's enterprise including access to areas  finance and training that had existed at the time, were overcome.

The law established the National Women's Business Council, a bipartisan panel that advises the president and Congress on economic issues important to women business owners. It also created Women's Business Centres, a national network of centres across the country which assist women in starting and growing their businesses.

For the first time, women who wished to be entrepreneurial, were provided with long overdue access to capital, education and technical assistance offered in specific gender based facilities.

The law also extended the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to protect women against discriminatory lending practices.

Nor was it just existing practice that was challenged. Evidence across all business sectors and business sizes from sole proprietors to corporations was gathered. The importance of using real, rather than imagined data has meant that women owned businesses have grown dramatically showing where actual progress has been made. Where gaps still exist, they can at last  be open to examination and action. 

The result has been a surge in women owned business, currently at 8.6m (America Express Open Report 2013) and the number is growing at one and a half times the national average. Jobs generated stand at some 7.8m with in excess of one trillion dollars of income generated.

A key to this change was the establishment of Women's Business Centres, which grew from a hand full to more than 100 across the US.

So, if the change can be so dramatic should Europe follow suit? If the answer is yes, then how?

Any opportunity to create the kind of economic impetus that the Women's Business Ownership Act did, must be welcomed. The potential for women to access finance, train both as entrepreneurs and have assistance should be welcomed by all.

So, how might we achieve a similar result to that seen in the US?

First, Europe must use those tools at its disposal to begin the process of change. It must learn from innovative projects that have taken the US model to heart and made it happen here.

The Women's International Centre for Economic Development in Liverpool is such an innovation. Financed partly through EU Structural Funds it is already seeing major gains in the effort to rebuild the Liverpool economy.

Helping create hundreds of new businesses, growing others, providing training and facilities through gender specific assistance and it is making real change to the economic lives of women and often their families too. Nor is age any discrimination to success and participation.

Having the ability on draw on international expertise in assessing possible new routes to success is significant. The academic board, drawn from internationally recognised experts in their field, advises on new opportunities backed by research which are  shown to be effective.

It has already helped hundreds of women – many of whom have been long term unemployed – to find employment or start a business.

If it has been shown to work both in the US and here in Europe, isn't it time that we looked at a wider application of schemes such as this?

So, come on Europe, let's look at ways of making this happen! If we do, then it isn't only individual who will benefit, but families, communities and member states too.

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