Women social entrepreneurs, a catalyst for gender equality

Last Friday I attended the WEstart conference on women in social entrepreneurship organised by our member the European Women’s Lobby (EWL). This event presented the results of a EWL project whose aim was to investigate if social enterprises can provide a more gender-equal and inclusive way of creating jobs and tackling social issues. The project gathered data on approximately one thousand women-led social enterprises in ten EU countries.

I have been coordinating the work of Social Platform on social economy and social enterprises for five years. At EU level, the gender equality dimension in the Social Business Initiative has been completely absent. This project and event have had the merit to bring evidence and raise awareness on the state of play of women’s social entrepreneurship in the EU. At the conference representatives of the European Commission and the Parliament committed to devote specific attention to the gender equality dimension, including in the future work of the Group of Experts on Social Business in which I participate. I personally commit to check this out.

One of the findings of WEstart is that women are more likely to start social enterprises than ordinary businesses. I am not surprised. Care responsibilities are still one of the major factors that prevent gender equality at traditional workplaces. 55% of the women that were interviewed responded that they had care responsibilities. Social enterprises seem to allow a better work-life balance for women than traditional jobs.

Women social entrepreneurs are mostly active in the health and social services sector – a sector that is highly feminised. Many have been motivated to start a social enterprise in response to personally experiencing an unmet social need in their communities. In this way women-led social enterprises bring about social innovation.

It is well known that women entrepreneurs struggle to be taken seriously in the male-dominated business world. For some women, this was an additional reason for setting up a social enterprise. During the conference, a migrant woman living in Belgium took the floor to say that finding a job in Belgium for a migrant woman is still very difficult. This is why she is trying to create a social enterprise with other migrant women, but they lack information on support structures that could help and guide them in this new adventure.

88% of the women interviewed feel like they are promoting gender equality with their social entrepreneurship activity. The main barriers they encountered in setting up and running their social business are difficulties in accessing funds, a lack of information about support structures and care responsibilities.

Recurring themes at the conference were the need to focus on improving access to financing, strengthening women’s leadership and managerial skills starting from enhancing self-confidence, more research and data collection, increasing information and availability of mentoring programmes and support structures. WEstart is just at the beginning. Let’s continue working together to nurture women social entrepreneurship and gender equality!