A 2014 study from the European Commission (EC) found that there were around 10.3 million female entrepreneurs working throughout the European Union. This may sound impressive, but consider that women make up about one-third of all self-employed Europeans, and less than 30 percent of startup entrepreneurs – despite comprising more than half (52 percent) of total population, which sits at over 500 million.
Worse yet, global gender parity is diminishing for the first time since the World Economic Forum began measuring it in 2006. Though Western Europe has reduced the gender gap to 25 percent, an average disparity of 32 percent worldwide remains to be closed. In countries like Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Spain, where female employment rates are below 60 percent, progress is especially slow.
This isn’t to say there aren’t impressive female entrepreneurs in Europe. On the contrary, there are hundreds, and along with a strong desire for increased female leadership within the bloc. “Of course women are ready to be in all the bigger institutional positions and governmental positions. We are ready to have women as a president, as a prime minister, ready to have a woman as President of the Republic”, says Italian entrepreneur and former European Parliament member, Luisa Todini, of Italy’s exclusive non-profit Comitato Leonardo.
Women are also demanding more from their leaders. On top of increasing diversity, integrating women’s skills and perspectives into the workforce has serious economic benefits. The World Economic Forum projects that reducing gendered imbalances could boost GDP anywhere between 9-27 percent. McKinsey Consulting Firm estimates that achieving women’s equality would contribute an additional 12 trillion dollars (10.3 trillion euros) to the global economy by 2025.
To help the bloc achieve the social and economic benefits of gender equality, the Commission and other groups have identified several obstacles that stand in the way of female entrepreneurs, and have created a wealth of resources to overcome them.
Arguably, the biggest hurdle facing women entrepreneurs is access to finance. In fact, only 15 percent of companies founded in the EU since 2017 are led by women and only 12 percent of founders at EU companies that received venture capitalist (VC) funding are female. Experts often chalk this up to unconscious bias. A recent American study found that even when pitches are identical, VCs are more likely to fund a man’s project than a woman’s. A history of double standards is likely to blame. Many iconic female leaders have expressed that characteristics like confidence are viewed less favourably in women than in men. In fact, scientific research conducted through the London School of Economicsfound that the gender gap is “largely driven by women’s lack of confidence”.
Access to information, training, and networks also stand in the way of women hoping to establish and run a business. As a result of biological makeup and generations of assigned gender roles, females face the added challenge of reconciling both professional and perceived familial responsibilities. This is exacerbated by the limited number of women entrepreneurs, which sparks a cycle. The less represented females are, the more male-dominant work environments become.
It’s impossible to address all obstacles at once, but public and private European groups are introducing initiatives specifically designed to bring women to the forefront of the startup movement. The EU’s Small Business Act, for one, aims to improve the approach to entrepreneurship by simplifying regulations and removing barriers to business development. It also addresses two problems that disproportionately affect women: access to finance and to markets. The Entrepreneurship 2020 Action Plan accomplishes similar goals, with further intentions to provide entrepreneurial education and training and reignite the culture of entrepreneurship among younger female workers.
There are also several financial resources available throughout the Union for those women hoping to start a new business venture. The Commission-created EU Prize for Women Innovators provides between 20,000 and 100,000 euros for both women innovators and entrepreneurs under 30 years old that inspire other women to bring their ideas to market. Furthermore, the WES Policy Network, European Community of Business Angels, and Rising Tide Europe provide either direct financial support or access to investors who can help push nascent businesses forward.
Global projects like the World Bank Group’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) are also available to EU women from select member states. We-Fi combines more than 1 billion dollars (circa 860 million euros) of financing to improve access to capital, provide technical assistance, and invest in projects and programs that support women and women-led SMEs.
Connecting female entrepreneurs to potential mentors and fellow entrepreneurs is another step that greatly benefits participants without incurring high costs. That’s why the European Commission launched WEgate, an online gateway for women’s entrepreneurship which offers learning materials for starting and growing a business, access to potential funding sources and networking opportunities, details about local support organisations and events, and other digital resources. Additional European bodies like Blooming Founders, Startup Live, WeHubs, and Woman Who Tech are geared specifically for those in the digital startup sphere.
Lastly, the Union has passed legislation so that self-employed women in all member states can take a parental leave of at least 14 weeks if they so choose. The EU continues to draft and enact arrangements that strengthen work-life balance for all workers involved in startup and entrepreneurial activities.
Since 2008, there has been a 3 percent increase in women entrepreneurs throughout the EU. Despite the fact that Greece, Albania, Portugal, Italy and Croatia have wide inequalities when it comes to gender employment, they are also happen to be the nations with the highest entrepreneurship rates for women.
Women tend to work in the same select industries, though. Deputy Secretary-General of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, Tiziana Pompei explained that in Italy, it’s sectors like commerce, tourism, farming, and personal services. Across the Union, female-dominated companies extend to industries like healthcare, social work, and education. Pompei continued, “There are still too few companies owned by women but they are on the rise, especially thanks to young women investing in the digital and innovative sectors.” Specifically, countries like Portugal are a great place for women in tech, thanks to a mix of social and federal policies that have encouraged this growth.
More than anything else, the female workforce will benefit from a culture shift. Women should feel comfortable celebrating their successes, and youth of all genders must be encouraged to pursue an education in emerging sectors.