A large share of Canadian job creation is attributable to the growth of SMEs, growth that is often a consequence of exporting. Yet, for the majority of Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs), business expansion stops at the border. Industry Canada estimates that approximately 11% of Canada's 2.2 million small SMEs engage in some form of exporting (Industry Canada, 2002). The typical small and medium-sized firm engages in less than three export transactions per year (Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade [DFAIT], 1999). These observations suggest that there may be considerable unrealized scope for Canadian firms to export.
At the same time, women entrepreneurs account for an increasing percentage of business ownership. (1) For example, Industry Canada (2002) reports that women wholly or partially own 45% of Canadian businesses. (2) However, women business owners are significantly less likely than men to undertake internationalization of their firms, even in growth industries (Canadian Bankers Association, CBA, 1997, 1998; Industry Canada, 2002; OECD, 1998). It has been stated that women-owned firms may present significant potential for exporting and economic development (McRae, 1998). (3) If exporting can be facilitated, particularly for new women-owned businesses, economic development will be furthered.
This study therefore explores the issues faced by women owners who have sought to expand their firms by export market development. For four reasons, this study focuses on the challenges faced by women-owned export orientated businesses.
First, a review of literature concludes that profiling Canadian women-owned firms in international trade is difficult because "few studies are done specifically on the characteristics of women-owned businesses in export; few studies on women entrepreneurs use markets served as a variable; [and] studies on export decision-making or behavior do not use gender as a variable" (McRea, 1999, p. 2). By focusing on women-owned firms, this work seeks to redress this gap. Researchers have also noted that the majority of export studies are drawn upon non-random, extreme case studies, high-potential ventures, small sample surveys, new independent firms or publicly listed companies, entrepreneurs and firms located in the United States, and (technology-based) manufacturing firms (Westhead, 1998). There is therefore a need to learn more about Canadian women-owned firms that export. Researchers (Brown, 2001, p. 38) suggest that this information "could enable more women entrepreneurs to learn how to become exporters."
Second, Bird and Bush (2002, p. 42-43) challenge researchers to look beyond the "masculine" paradigm of enterprise creation:
The male-derived emphasis not only pervades these definitions and
descriptions but also underpins that expected process of new
venture creation, generally conceived as sequential, profit
maximizing, and strategically and competitively focused ... In
spite of this explanation for the dominance of male-driven theories
of organizational creation, the effect of this emphasis creates two
dilemmas. First, as useful and explanatory as these approaches are
for men, we cannot be sure they adequately reflect the organizing
process and organizations of women. While these approaches cover
much variance among male entrepreneurs, their application to the
female entrepreneurs is open to question.... The second dilemma is
found at a broader level, where the omission of "feminine" aspect
in theoretical discussions of new ventures and venture creation
processes raises the risk that our studies suffer a lack of
construct validity (Kerlinger, 1973).
A better understanding of the problems faced by women-owned, export-oriented SMEs will identify problems and opportunities encountered by other small firms. As such, learning from the best experiences of practices that women owners who have use to developed export markets will help assist all business owners to successfully export goods and services. …