New figures pointing to a rise in the number of self-employed women obscures the fact that a lot of women’s enterprise in the UK is unglamorous, scarcely profitable and curbed by childcare responsibilities, according to an expert who is speaking at an event on women’s enterprise at the Festival of Social Science.
“The 34 per cent rise in numbers of self-employed women shown in the latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) report is not evidence that women’s enterprise is flourishing in the UK,” says Dr Julia Rouse, an entrepreneurship expert from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). “Rather, a vast pool of female entrepreneurial potential continues to be wasted.”
The recent rise in female self-employment simply reflects, researchers suspect, the disproportionate impact of the recession on women’s full time employment, particularly in the public sector. Women still only make up a third of the UK’s self-employed (1.4 million) and the top occupations for self-employed women are cleaners and domestics, child-minders, carers and hairdressers.
“The reality of entrepreneurship for most people is not the glamour of Dragon’s Den, but the struggle to make ends meet,” Dr Rouse points out. The majority of self-employed women earn less than £10,000 a year – less than a full-time employee earning minimum wage.
Enterprise is nevertheless a vital coping strategy for thousands of women. And, say researchers, improved government support and targeted policies could create the right conditions to support women, particularly mothers, to grow viable and profitable businesses. Innovative ways to support women’s enterprise will come under scrutiny at an event ‘Developing Women’s Enterprise to Create Sustainable Communities’ held during the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science which starts on Saturday.
Conventional gender arrangements such as women doing more childcare, earning less and having less control of family money lead women to start-up businesses less often and, once in business, have more constraints on the time and finance that they can invest in growing the business, says Dr Rouse. “To date, enterprise policy has not been well integrated with childcare and maternity policies which simply don’t meet the needs of women wanting to launch a business,” she adds. She says recent research suggests:
– Enterprise programmes that support business start-ups fail to address the strength of the childcare barrier to enterprise and so do little to remove the barrier to start-up or growth.
– Even women from better off families, with good career histories and networks, are much less likely to start in business if they have childcare responsibilities.
– Self-employed women need childcare support at the launch of their businesses before the business turns a profit because the start-up period is very intensive and time hungry.
– Self-employed women are not entitled to maternity leave and yet can only claim maternity pay if they take leave. Support is needed to help them keep their businesses alive while they juggle care for an infant with part-time trading.
– Both policy and practice changes are needed to help women far from the labour market make the transition from economic inactivity (ie being out of paid work for a long time) to start-up.
“The failure of successive governments to understand the strength of the maternity and childcare barrier to enterprise means that a great deal of female entrepreneurial potential is being wasted,” Dr Rouse states. “Many mothers are discouraged from starting businesses and constrained in the businesses they do start. Policy failures create costs for everyone – families, communities and UK plc.
“We need maternity pay for women trading part-time in a struggle to just keep their businesses alive after having a baby,” she adds. “And we need more funded childcare support for women entrepreneurs, particularly at start-up when effort must go before income and tax breaks mean very little if the woman is not yet turning a profit. Childcare support would also be a great investment for established businesses that cannot grow while women are tied to their local area and part-time working due to the school run.”