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Damilola Ojuri from the Federation of Small Businesses outlines research highlighting the need for more targeting of financial and practical support at female entrepreneurs.
Over the last few years, the Federation of Small Businesses [FSB] has focused its efforts on illuminating the corporate experience of women entrepreneurs. This has culminated in two reports on the subject and engaging collaborations such as our #SheMeansBusiness campaign with tech giant Facebook.
As the leading business representative organisation for the small business community, our focus has always been on easing the experience of the business entities, many of whom are sole traders. Our work has not only focused on the economic journey taken by women entrepreneurs, but the importance of having the right infrastructure to ensure that women entrepreneurs have the best chance at success. Most recently, we joined forces with the Fawcett Society to endorse a letter to the Chancellor which called for greater financial assistance for the childcare industry.
In late June, at the height of the pandemic, I appeared as a panellist at the Women and Work All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting to discuss the experience of women entrepreneurs and the extent to which they have been able to navigate the crisis. Despite some progress, it has become apparent that the landscape has not fully embraced the nuances of female entrepreneurship.
The coronavirus pandemic merely exacerbated existing inequalities. Results of the recent Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy small business survey showed that only 15% of SME employers are women-led, a drop of two percentage points since last year and a worrying statistic given that 99% of the business population are SMEs. Female entrepreneurs continue to face barriers such as access to finance, the cost of obtaining finance and the absence of successful role models. These difficulties persisted during the crisis.
The results of a recent FSB survey showed that 73% of female respondents said that the outbreak had a ‘very negative impact on cashflow’ and 17% thought that the outbreak had a ‘moderately negative impact on cashflow’. Almost all female respondents were directly affected by the crisis. Women entrepreneurs have historically shown an aversion to obtaining loans, partly because they are seldom successful and where they have succeeded, research shows that they are often offered extortionate interest rates.
The survey gave us an indication as to how women entrepreneurs in smaller businesses might respond to the Government’s pandemic support packages. The FSB surveyed small businesses in March of this year, just before the mass outbreak of the virus and more women business owners thought the state of the domestic economy was the greatest barrier to growth (80.37%) as compared to their male counterparts (72.94%), followed by access to finance (8.84% male v 9.05% female) and the cost of finance (3.71% male v 6.35% female).
When we consider the economic impact of the crisis and its effect on financial risk, the pandemic-induced downturn would have constituted the worst possible scenario for many women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses.
Last month we surveyed our membership again with a view to understanding the impact of the outbreak, we found that 86% of female respondents had not applied for the initial Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme loan scheme for a number of reasons and 24% of those women did not know enough about the scheme to apply. Our results also exposed that female respondents were more concerned about the government’s loan schemes than their male counterparts, their foremost concern being a ‘general apprehension about debt repayment’, linking back to their aversion to accessing finance.
These findings validate the importance of financial education for women entrepreneurs, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the financial infrastructure or are lacking in confidence.
The FSB has provided several recommendations in this space through our policy work which I would group into three categories. First, policymakers must endeavour to understand the needs of women entrepreneurs and they can do this by increasing the sample of women-owned and women-led businesses in the annual small business survey and widen the scope of the survey to include questions which are relevant to women entrepreneurs.
Government must also ensure that all enterprise development programmes are equality impact-assessed. The second concern is finance, policymakers should build and support loan schemes which are specifically targeted at women entrepreneurs. FSB research shows that women are more likely to use less conventional schemes such as crowd funding and angel financing so government-driven schemes should conform to these formats where possible.
The final category concerns the support infrastructure which is available to women entrepreneurs. Government must support women entrepreneurs by supporting industries in which they are most concentrated and by prioritising family friendly structures such as the nursery and childcare industries.
*Damilola Ojuri is the lead on Women and Family Friendly Policies at the Federation of Small Businesses.