In late October 2003, Canada released the report of the Prime Minister's Task Force on Women Entrepreneurs. The task force was chaired by Sarmite Bulte, a member of Canada's parliament and former president of the Canadian Association of Women Entrepreneurs. For Forum readers who design export strategies with women entrepreneurs' needs in mind, the report is a useful reference.
"Most of the issues that women face in Canada are the same in developing countries--it's a matter of degree," noted Andrina Lever, who contributed to the Canadian report; she also serves as a resource person for ITC Services Exporting workshops.
Women entrepreneurs are the fastest-growing sector in the Canadian economy. Their number has increased 200% in the past 20 years and stands at more than 821,000 today. Women are creating three times as many businesses as men. These women entrepreneurs contribute over 18 billion Canadian dollars (US$ 14 billion) annually to Canada's economy. Yet they continue to encounter unique obstacles in achieving business success.
The report--based on research with over 1,000 women entrepreneurs--calls on the federal Government to create a new Office of Women's Business Ownership; expand its programmes for women entrepreneurs across Canada; improve access to financial support, government procurement and export opportunities; grant maternity benefits to entrepreneurs; and support more research on women entrepreneurs.
The Government, as a first response, is extending a number of regional initiatives to support women in business; organizing a national Women's Economic Forum; creating a Canadian Women's Innovation Award; expanding its research and publications programme, and taking steps to feed results to policy-makers; and integrating women entrepreneurs' issues more systematically in meetings between the federal and local levels of government.
Issues and solutions
* Advocacy: a voice for women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs have different goals and life experiences. Many are primarily responsible for their families. They have less access to traditional networks and spheres of influence and have different training needs. Mainstream business organizations don't target women to become members, do not represent their interests or are often too expensive for small firms. The report offers recommendations to champion the needs of women entrepreneurs.
* Access to capital. Access to finance is by far the greatest challenge facing women entrepreneurs. A 2000 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on women entrepreneurs came to the same conclusion.
"Ask the funding agencies to report the percentage of funding which goes to women-owned businesses. I believe that just asking the question may cause enough embarassment to cause action," said one Canadian business owner. Sample recommendations include amendments to Canada's Small Business Financing Act, programme reviews at business development agencies and reviews of lending criteria.
* Access to employment benefits and social safety-net programmes. The task force repeatedly heard that women entrepreneurs would gladly pay into employment insurance if they could have access to the benefits.
Currently, self-employed women and those who own more than a certain percentage of their own companies are not eligible for insurance or maternity benefits. These owners have no protection in Canada's federal social safety-net programmes, while their employees do. "I have little protection if I lose my job or there is a disaster. However, my entire team (50 employees) is protected," said one owner. "It seems absurd that we employ over 20 people, who all have the opportunity to pay into an employment insurance plan . …