The state of women entrepreneurship and women-owned businesses in Canada

The COVID-pandemic has magnified systemic and longstanding inequalities. Women and girls have been disproportionately affected by the crisis and the Government of Canada is taking steps to ensure there is gender equality in entrepreneurship and inclusive economic growth.

Entrepreneurship is an important driver for innovation, job creation and productivity growth.

However, men and women are still unequal in becoming entrepreneurs and growing their businesses: women are less likely to become entrepreneurs, and women-owned businesses are smaller than their men-owned counterparts.

Research has shown that differences remain between women-owned and men-owned businesses: women-owned businesses remain underrepresented in the economy. Their start-ups have lower growth rates of income and employment and lower survival rates than their men-owned counterparts.

The Government of Canada has been taking action to prevent the pandemic from rolling back progress or reversing the hard-won gains of women in Canada through different programs such as the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES) and the Women and Gender Equality Canada’s Women’s Program. These programs will continue to achieve gender equality in business leadership and inclusive economic growth and help promote entrepreneurship among women and to help grow women-owned businesses.

A look at the numbers

Over the past decade, there has been a 30% increase in women-owned businesses with more than 360,000 self-employed women in Canada. Women-owned businesses (that is, at least 51% of shares owned by women) account for a relatively small share of all businesses in Canada.

According to the Survey on Financing and Growth of Small and Medium Enterprises, women-owned businesses accounted for 15.6% of all small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in 2017, a share that has been stable over the past decade.

Women-owned businesses were more dominant in service industries such as retail trade, accommodation and food services, and tourism, and less dominant in agriculture, forestry, fishing and construction. They were also more prevalent among enterprises with fewer than 20 employees.

Over 83% of women-owned SMEs use personal sources of financing to start their businesses. Women are less likely to seek and receive financing than men (32.6% vs. 38%) and firms owned by men are more likely to receive venture capital or angel funding and other forms of leverage.

Many women-owned businesses are more commonly found in urban areas than rural areas and are more likely to be found in Quebec and British Columbia than in other parts of Canada.

What the future holds

Women and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds bring new ideas, services, products and approaches to the economic community but often face barriers to starting and growing their businesses.

Research shows that advancing women’s equality and increasing the number of women entrepreneurs in Canada has the potential to add $150 billion in incremental GDP by 2026, a 0.6% increase in annual GDP growth. That is 6% higher than business-as-usual GDP growth forecasts over the next decade.

Each province stands to gain between 0.4 and 0.9% each year, with the most potential growth in British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.

The Government of Canada announced in February 2021, a new call for proposals through the Women and Gender Equality Canada’s Women’s Program,which will provide $100 million in funding to launch new projects or scale-up past projects that increase women and girls’ participation in Canada’s economic, social, democratic and political life.

The program provides funding to eligible organizations in three priority areas:

  • Ending violence against women and girls
  • Improving women and girls’ economic security and prosperity
  • Encouraging women and girls in leadership and decision-making roles

The Government of Canada also provided up to $15 million in additional funding through the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy which has helped women entrepreneurs throughout the pandemic.

In June 2020, Canada was recognized by CARE, an international organization that works with women and girls around the world empowering them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty,as having the most gender-responsive plan to address the COVID-pandemic.

Between 2015 and 2019, Canada increased funding to support the work of gender equality-seeking organizations from under $20 million per year to over $100 million available in 2021/22.

Five ways to drive progress within your organization

  1. Go beyond a vocal commitment to diversity by cascading a clear business case for change. More than half of companies consider gender diversity a top 10 strategic priority, but only 14% have clearly articulated a business case for change.
  2. Set targets, track performances, share results and hold leaders accountable. More than half, 55%, of organizations lack targets for female representation, and 75% do not track female recruitment nor reward leaders for promoting gender diversity.
  3. Create formal sponsorship programs to help promote women. Men are 50% more likely to attribute their advancement to a senior leader than women are, yet 80% of companies lack a formal sponsorship program.
  4. Make flexibility compatible with promotion. Most companies offer long-term leave or part-time programs, but 58% of employees believe that taking advantage of them hurts their career progression.
  5. Raise awareness of, and combat, unconscious bias to create a truly inclusive environment. Women comprise only one-quarter of senior leaders, but 80% of employees think their company is inclusive.
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