Hitting the she-start button – women entrepreneurs can lead the recovery

Earlier this year, we marvelled as billionaire entrepreneurs Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos reached for the stars through trial launches of rockets developed by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. In many ways, their race represents popular perceptions of entrepreneurship – the expression of a drive that is ambitious, competitive, innovative, and…. male.

For too long, talented women have watched from the sidelines as male entrepreneurs experience the risk, rewards, fame and fortune of making and shaping a business. Women in OECD countries are 1.5 times less likely than men to be working on a business start-up, and while the gap varies between countries, there is no OECD country in which women are more active than men in business. Where women are engaged in entrepreneurship, their businesses tend to generate less revenue, and are less productive and resilient than those run by men, driven by the sectors they tend to operate in (retail, tourism, health care and education), working patterns (often on a part-time basis) and the barriers they face [1].

It needn’t be that way. Since 2013, the OECD has been finding ways to boost female entrepreneurship through our work on the Missing Entrepreneurs. Many countries have begun to put in place measures to expand access to entrepreneurship. For example, in 2018, Canada introduced its first Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, with an initial investment of CAD 2 billion (increased to CAD 5 billion in 2020). Such targeted policy measures across the OECD have helped many more women launch their own business, and in recent years, we have begun to see some progress towards closing the gap. The forthcoming 2021 edition of Missing Entrepreneurs will show that the gender gap in self-employment closed by about 15% between 2002 and 2019 and the gap among employer firms closed by even more: nearly 20% [2].

However, COVID-19 threatens to undermine those efforts. Female entrepreneurs had higher representation in sectors hit the hardest. They also bore a higher burden of additional domestic responsibilities: about one-quarter of all women business leaders stated that they spent six hours or more per day on domestic responsibilities between May and October 2020, whereas only 11% of all male business leaders reported undertaking this amount of household work [3]. And despite the overall success of emergency support measures in reaching vulnerable firms and entrepreneurs, women have struggled to access them, either because they are less likely to use bank loans (many programmes rely on existing bank products) or because they are smaller on average (often support was contingent on meeting size thresholds) than men-owned enterprises [4].

As a result, female-led businesses saw much higher closure rates in response to pandemic containment measures, threatening longer-term survival. Globally, the closure rate for women-led businesses (27%) was 7 percentage points higher than for men-led SMEs (20%) during May 2020, and remained 2 percentage points higher as late as October 2020.

In our latest report, Entrepreneurship Policies through a Gender Lens we partnered with the Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Policy Research Project (Global WEP) to set out what is needed to enable and empower these women – and many more – to start up and start again. Not just as a matter of fairness, but as a route to growth. Estimates suggest that global GDP could rise by as much as 2% if we could eliminate the gender gap in entrepreneurship [5].

It shows that unlocking women’s entrepreneurial talent requires more than warm words. Action is still required to tackle gender bias and discrimination, boost entrepreneurial skills, expand networks and advice, improve access to finance and develop supportive business frameworks. Too often efforts to stimulate women’s entrepreneurship are sub-scale, piecemeal and fleeting. As we seek to build back better, there is an opportunity to use recovery packages to put in place more ambitious, sustained policies and programmes to promote women’s entrepreneurship.

The report provides policymakers with inspiration from many countries. For example, in Turkey, since 2013 Women Cooperatives have provided entrepreneurs with a support network, financial resources, training and education, access to markets and financial literacy. And in Australia the Boosting Female Founders (BFF) initiative provides match funding to stimulate private sector investment in innovative start-ups led by women.

Yet it also shows that – despite the significant challenges they face – in too many countries, support remains limited, and in some, such as Denmark, Mexico, and Poland, there are no policies at all targeted explicitly at women entrepreneurs.

To secure the recovery that we want and need – one that is both rapid and inclusive – governments need to embed measures to promote women’s entrepreneurship firmly and centrally within their support packages. Action is long overdue, but we now have a unique opportunity to hit the she-start button, and help many more women to reach for the stars in their entrepreneurial ambitions. The OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities will continue to find ways to help them, including through our Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative.

[1] Entrepreneurship Policies through a Gender Lens, OECD (2021)

[2] Missing Entrepreneurs 2021, OECD (forthcoming)

[3] “The Future of Business Survey”, Facebook/OECD/World Bank (2020)

[4] SME and Entrepreneurship Outlook 2021, OECD (2021)

[5] Bridging the Entrepreneurship Gender Gap: The Power of Networks, Blomquist, M. et al. (2014)

Author profile

As a key member of the OECD Senior Management team, Ms. Kamal-Chaoui supports the Secretary-General in achieving the OECD’s mission to advance economic growth and social progress as well as contributing to other global agendas such as the G20, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms. Kamal-Chaoui has held several senior positions at the OECD since 1998. From 2012 to 2016, she served as Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary-General. In this role, she supported the Secretary-General’s strategic agenda and led the OECD Inclusive Growth initiative, the Knowledge-Sharing Alliance programme, the development of the Global Deal and the implementation of the OECD Strategy on Development. From 2003 to 2012, she was Head of the Urban Programme in the Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development. She has also previously worked in the Trade Directorate and the Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs. Before joining the OECD, Ms. Kamal-Chaoui worked for a university-based research institute as well as several media outlets.

During her extensive career at the OECD, she has forged numerous strategic partnerships and collaborations for the OECD. They include major philanthropic organisations (e.g. Ford Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Rockefeller Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations) as well as other prominent organisations (e.g. Vatican Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, Club of Madrid), multilateral institutions (World Bank, IADB, ADB, EBRD, European Commission) and the private sector. She has been a member of several International Committees and Advisory Boards (World Economic Forum Deputy Board of Trustees, Shanghai World Expo, Michael Bloomberg Mayors Challenge for Europe, Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo’s Strategic Committee). She has also been a Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.

Ms. Kamal-Chaoui is a French and Moroccan national. She holds a Master’s Degree in Macroeconomics from the University of Paris Dauphine and a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and History from the University of Paris Diderot. She recently received the "Women of the Decade in Enterprise and Leadership" award of the Women's Economic Forum.