Revolutionising Women’s Entrepreneurship Policy

Colette Henry

Women entrepreneurs are helping drive entrepreneurship and innovation in the global economy. An estimated 274 million women globally are currently involved in business start-ups; 139 million women are business owners/managers of established businesses, and 144 million women are informal investors (GEM, 2021, p. 14). Yet there is still a significant gender gap in entrepreneurship across most countries. To help narrow this gap and enhance the environment for women entrepreneurs, effective and targeted policy interventions to support women’s entrepreneurship are needed.

A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in conjunction with the Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Policy Research Network (GWEP) (OECD, 2021), explored entrepreneurship policies with a gender lens across 27 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, South America and Australasia. The report addressed women’s entrepreneurship policy across several different themes, including, fostering a gender-sensitive entrepreneurship culture, strengthening the design and delivery of supports, building entrepreneurial skills, facilitating access to financial capital, supporting networks and building a supportive regulatory environment. While findings uncovered some good practice examples of effective policy interventions, they also revealed some significant deficits in policy provision. Many policies and programmes were disconnected from the overarching entrepreneurship support system, lacked systematic monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and failed to include women in their design, delivery and management. The time has come to correct these policy deficiencies and revolutionize the women’s entrepreneurship policy agenda.

With this in mind, the OECD and the GWEP recently held a joint panel session as part of the ICSB 2022 Washington Conference. The session addressed the following three questions:  

  • What are the ‘big challenges’ in women’s entrepreneurship policy design and delivery?
  • Are there examples of effective policies from around the world that could help revolutionise the women’s entrepreneurship policy landscape?
  • From a research and practice perspective, what revolutionary new ideas are needed to move this agenda forward and enhance the environment for women entrepreneurs?

Speaking prior to the session, ICSB Board Member Vicki Stylianou stressed that the right policy settings are foundational to any successful programme and its implementation. Policy settings need to be informed and underpinned by relevant research, which is the focus of both the OECD’s and Global WEP’s work. The OECD is an international organisation that works to build better policies for better lives. It works on establishing evidence-based international standards and finding solutions to a range of social, economic and environmental challenges., including women’s entrepreneurship. GWEP focuses on enhancing women’s economic empowerment by contributing to the development of more inclusive entrepreneurship policies. GWEP researchers from 36 countries apply a gender lens to analyse entrepreneurship policy, highlight inequalities and offer informed recommendations that can be operationalised so these inequalities can be addressed. They also share good practice examples of effective polices so that countries can learn from one another. Vick added: “It’s great to see the work of ICSB align with that of GWEP. ICSB has an impressive history of supporting women’s entrepreneurship through initiatives such as Womenpreneurs’ (WE) which has a vision to promote female entrepreneurship for a better world, and inspire the community of interest to change the world.”

The joint panel was moderated by Professor Colette Henry, Chair of GWEP, and included: Professor Emerita Susan Coleman (University of Hartford, USA); David Halabisky (OECD’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities, France); Dr. Roshni Narendran (University of Tasmania, Australia); Professor Emerita Barbara Orser (University of Ottawa, Canada) and Professor Rosa Nelly Trevinyo-Rodriguez (Trevinyo-Rodriguez and Associates, Mexico). Colette highlighted the timeliness and importance of debating how best to revolutionise women’s entrepreneurship policy, and put the three questions to the panel asking them to “be bold in sharing their insights, views and ideas.”

Identifying the Big Challenges

By way of laying a foundation for the session, the panel discussed several big challenges related to women’s entrepreneurship policy design and delivery. Susan highlighted challenges associated with: the consistent gender neutral perspective on entrepreneurship policy; the ‘one size fits all’ approach; getting women involved; disconnected polices and programmes; policy and support silos; data gathering and evaluation. David highlighted issues related to: the lack of gender disaggregated data; defining challenges and establishing what we want to achieve, and getting Government Ministers to agree to policies. Roshni focused on: bureaucracy issues; inexperienced government officials; the ‘one size fits all’ approach; the continued failure to recognise that women entrepreneurs are not a homogenous group; and the lack of a coherent support system for women entrepreneurs.

Sharing Good Practice Examples

When the discussion turned to focus on good practice examples of entrepreneurship policies that had the potential to revolutionise the women’s entrepreneurship policy landscape, the panel highlighted several. Susan highlighted the USA’s Women’s Business Ownership (WBO) Act of 1988, discussing how it dramatically changed the landscape for women entrepreneurs by giving them access to business loans,  establishing a National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), and providing training and education through a network of Women’s Business Centres. These were viewed as tangible and critical supports. David commented that the OECD has a unique perspective across countries, and works closely with governments to improve inclusivity in policy making through their ‘gender recommendation’, which they monitor closely. His good practice example focused on Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy which he sees as a template that could be applied to other countries. It hits at different levels, is a multi-year investment and, thus, is highly sustainable. Roshni highlighted a niche transgender women-focused programme in India, which provides a holistic programme of assistance targeted at a very specific group of women entrepreneurs. A suite of supports is offered in housing, healthcare and education.

Revolutionary New Ideas to Enhance the Environment for Women Entrepreneurs

Finally, the panel were asked to reflect on potential revolutionary new ideas – from a research and practice perspective – bold ideas that could move this agenda forward and enhance the environment for women entrepreneurs. Barbara referred the audience to the 2021 OECD-GWEP report – Entrepreneurship Policies Through a Gender Lens ( which contains good foundational information on women’s entrepreneurship policies from 27 different countries. She highlighted dedicated women’s enterprise organisations, inclusive entrepreneurship curricula, integrated policy frameworks and feminist entrepreneurship policies as initiatives with the potential to revolutionise the women’s entrepreneurship policy landscape. She also underscored the need for intelligence gathering and the importance of transparency in the design, delivery and evaluation of policies.

Rosa Nelly highlighted the importance of context in women’s entrepreneurship, reminding us that the local political environment really does matter. She shared insights on the situation in Mexico, explaining how some good women’s entrepreneurship programmes had just completely dissolved overnight due to lack of government funding and commitment. She commented: “We need revolutionary new ideas and women-targeted programmes to encourage women entrepreneurs to cross over into more profitable sectors. We also need action at the local level – a local, national and international revolution!”

Susan reminded attendees that calls for change come from those who are closest to the action: “this bubbling up from the locality is needed to generate feedback on what works and what doesn’t. We also need to get women entrepreneurs to the table.” And while David questioned the focus on ‘local’, he acknowledged its role. He suggested that more engagement with government is needed, and that national policy frameworks are the most critical in ensuring  support for those within and outside of the women entrepreneurs pipeline. He also called on all of us to “engage more with government and sell our revolutionary new ideas to politicians.Roshni drew attention to micro finance, financial literacy, advocacy and research as areas with true revolutionary potential.

Colette wrapped up the session by thanking the panel for taking the time to share their views. She acknowledged that many of the insights discussed were drawn from the OECD-GWEP report “Entrepreneurship Policies through a Gender Lens” published in May 2021. She encouraged the audience to read the report and look out for the follow up report, work on which will commence in the Autumn. She thanked the ICSB Team – Vicki, Aymen and Nouf and their colleagues – for hosting the session, as well as the attendees who joined the session from around the world. She concluded by saying: “I hope that you got something from the session and that our discussion prompts each of you to start thinking in a revolutionary way about the women’s entrepreneurship policy agenda!”

The panel recording can be found on ICSB’s Facebook Page: