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Women’s businesses mirror gender segregated labour market

Women’s businesses mirror gender segregated labour market

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Illustration Lena Eklund (cropped)

There is strong political will in Sweden to strengthen women’s entrepreneurship. Between 2007 and 2014 the centre-right government spent a total of 800m SEK (€90m) on supporting, developing and highlighting women’s enterprise.

De-regulated public sector markets open up for new businesses, but there is a risk that Swedish businesses will mirror the Swedish labour market and end up being just as gender segregated.

Many of the markets which have been opened up for competition over the past 20 years are within areas where women traditionally have been active. As a result more women have started their own companies, for instance within geriatric and other healthcare areas.

“If you create new markets within areas where women have been active, you get more women entrepreneurs. But you further gender segregation too, and you risk going from a low-pay occupation to a low-profit company. This means we’re not thinking new and I feel this is a big problem,” says Eva Blomberg, professor of history at Södertörn University College and one of the authors of ” Female entrepreneurship - a goal or a means to an end?”

Between 2008 and 2011, 19 researchers have been studying a range of aspects of female entrepreneurship. They started by addressing the question ‘What is the problem with women entrepreneurs?’ from a range of different angles and knowledge areas. What does a woman entrepreneur really look like? What makes women start a company? Can you really compare Swedish female entrepreneurs to those in the USA? What stimulates women entrepreneurs and which impact can various political initiatives have? The book does not come up with any simple answers, not even to its own basic question - is female entrepreneurship a goal or a means to an end? Is this about gender equality or growth?

“It’s all very ambiguous. We run a risk of creating a problem around women’s entrepreneurship when this in reality is about the male structures present in many of society’s sectors, for instance within universities and colleges,” says Eva Blomberg.

Great political interest

Female entrepreneurship has created great political interest over the past 20 years and is now on the agenda of most European countries. It was also one of two themes up for debate during the Northern Future Forum in Stockholm in February, where the leaders for nine Nordic and Baltic countries plus the UK met. The motivation for getting more women to become entrepreneurs is that women’s business ideas should be nurtured in order to increase growth and improve competitiveness. 

During the last and the present parliamentary term, Sweden’s centre-right government has spent 100m SEK (€11m) every year to improve the conditions for female entrepreneurs. The government has also asked Statistics Sweden to create more gender-specific statistics and parliament has passed several resolutions to improve employers’ security - for instance when it comes to unemployment insurance and health insurance.  

As early as in 2006, when the government decided to specifically back women entrepreneurs, statistics for 2005 showed that Sweden, followed by Denmark and Norway, had the lowest number of entrepreneurs among working women in the 25 EU countries and Norway. The same list showed that Finland had considerably more self-employed women. But this has not always been the case. Swedish women have historically been active entrepreneurs. Many ran their own companies within the textile industry, they have been running corner shops. But structural changes in many industries affected many trades - not least those run by women. The textile industry flagged out and corner shops have been pushed out by big supermarket chains.  

“The areas where women were trailblazers have lost out to the competition,” concludes Eva Blomberg.

Structural obstacles

These are the things the current political drive is aiming to change. The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, which is responsible for most of the money politicians are spending on this, works on a range of activities aimed at helping existing businesses, supporting new ideas and making women entrepreneurs more visible. 

“Women are just as active as men in working life, so is it OK that 25 percent of businesses are run by women and 75 percent by men? Women manage brilliantly as entrepreneurs, but the structures around us need to become more supportive. There are perceptions about what a business is, and they often do not fit with what female entrepreneurship means,” says Gunilla Thorstensson, director of activities since the beginning in 2007.

The programme ‘Promoting women’s entrepreneurship’ mainly focuses on three things. One is to provide support for women who are running and developing businesses. Business development is one important support.  

“Women often end up inside a business model where it is very difficult to grow, but by supporting business development you can give them new tools. I have heard participants at our business development programmes say ‘if I hadn’t been given this I would have closed my company down’,” says Gunilla Thorstensson.

Long-term effects

The two other focus areas look at ways to make it easier for women to start and run their own businesses and to showcase women who run businesses successfully. Nearly 900 women are ambassadors for women entrepreneurs and visit schools to talk about what it is like to run a company. There are also activities at universities and colleges aimed at making women in higher education more interested in starting their own business even before they have finished their studies. 

140,000 people took advantage of the programme during the first period, i.e. between 2007 and 2010, according to the Agency for Economic and Regional Growth’s own figures. 27,000 women have taken part in business development training and 31,300 women at universities and in colleges have developed their entrepreneurship and also started 540 new businesses. The ambassadors for women entrepreneurs are estimated to have met more than 82,000 people. Yet Gunilla Thorstensson underlines that women’s entrepreneurship is a complex issue which is influenced by many structures and different conditions.

“It’s about behaviour, attitudes and perceptions, and that means we cannot simply push a button. It takes time and the results of our labour could show up at a much later stage,” says Gunilla Thorstensson. 

The challenge now is to get strategies in place by the programme’s end in 2014 allowing women to take part in business promoting efforts on equal terms with men, for instance through business incubators, state capital for businesses, guidance and business development programmes. Today this sort of help is far too much targeted at trades which are dominated by men, according to Gunilla Thorstensson.

Individualised equality 

The complicated nature of women’s entrepreneurship is also supported by the research presented in the book ‘Female entrepreneurship - a goal or a means to an end?’ It shows how 20 years of policies aimed at improving conditions for women entrepreneurs rarely have given the desired results. It is simply impossible to determine whether new businesses have been created as a result of the measures which have been put in place. The book also analyses of the claim that Sweden is doing so much worse on women entrepreneurship than the USA, the country which is often held up as the good example. Many of the businesses created there are set up by poor women who cannot afford child care in any other way. Many of the businesses which are created there have a short lifespan. In the Nordic countries with their strong welfare states women have not been forced to start companies because old ones have gone out of business. The research also shows that women with small children prefer the safety of permanent jobs. 

Great political hope has been put on the privatisation of the public sector, with the belief that this would create an arena where women’s inventiveness and ideas would come to fruition. Yet experience shows the visions have not been fulfilled. Small businesses started by women have found it hard to compete with larger ones within the same trade.

“As a result of public sector privatisation, women have become potential entrepreneurs. This is not a problem for those who want to start a business, but for those who are forced into starting one it is a problem. If they become self-employed, what growth have they created? They are simply doing the same work with less job security. They even risk earning even less than before. This is something that should be debated on a political level,” says Eva Blomberg. 

She says women contribute to the social economy regardless of whether they are employed or run a business. Growth is mainly achieved when a business starts employing people. It is hard to say whether or not it is a good thing to gender-identify businesses by helping out women entrepreneurs in particular. It is a positive thing to highlight women’s role in the national economy. The downside is that you risk individualising a problem when in reality it is based on existing structures which today favour men.

“Gender equality has been limited to an individual level and this is a development which has positive and negative sides to it. It is all very ambiguous, but there is a risk that failure as an entrepreneur becomes nobody’s fault but your own,” says Eva Blomberg. 

Fewer women in Sweden start businesses

Women in Sweden run or start businesses to a lesser degree than men and both men and women are generally less inclined to start and run businesses compared to people in other countries. In 2010, 32 percent of the country’s single person businesses were women and  28 percent of businesses with employees were led by women. Women accounted for 32 percent of new businesses established last year. Most businesses created and run by women are in the healthcare sector, in education and in service industries.

The Swedish government wants to change the relatively low level of female entrepreneurship. Since the centre-right coalition came to power in 2006 it has spent 100m SEK (€11m) every year to champion women entrepreneurs - that’s a total of 800m SEK (€90m) between 2007 and 2014. 

The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth is in charge of the drive, and it runs a programme called ‘Promoting women’s entrepreneurship’.  The work is divided into three focus areas:

  1. To help businesses run and developed by women 
  2. To make it easier for women to run and develop businesses
  3. To make women’s businesses more visible in economic life and in society as a whole.

State-owned Almi Företagspartner AB with its 17 regional daughter companies also works to promote women’s businesses, through their program ‘Styrelsekraft’ (‘Corporate power’)

Read more (in Swedish):


19 researchers on women entrepreneurs

Sweden book

When the then Minister for Enterprise Maud Olofsson published the government’s planned drive to help women’s businesses, the state-run innovation agency VINNOVA were commissioned to run an interdisciplinary research programme spanning a range of subjects and places of learning. ”Research on women’s entrepreneurship” concluded in 2011 and 19 researchers from eight disciplines talk about their results in the book ”Female entrepreneurship - a goal or a means to an end?” (SNS 2011). It was edited by Eva Blomberg, Gun Hedlund and Martin Wottle.  

Read more (in Swedish):


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