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Business & Economy

Experts call on Government to support women’s enterprise

Some of the UK’s leading voices in women’s enterprise have come together in a new report to say that current Government policy has failed to recognise the additional challenges faced by millions of women-led businesses.

As the Government and local authorities across the UK launch campaigns to ‘Build Back Better’ and help the UK’s economy recover and grow in a sustainable way post COVID-19, experts from Newcastle University Business School have joined other leading voices in business and academia to say that more needs to be done to support women’s enterprise and avoid a “catastrophic” social and economic end to 2020.

The Women’s Enterprise Policy Group (WEPG) has today (August 11) launched a ‘Framework of Policy Actions to Build Back Better for Women’s Enterprise’ which aims to address the gaps in Covid-19 enterprise support for women.

Evidence from the report indicates that women face a “tsunami” of job losses and business closures, unless the Government develops enterprise policy that is productive and fair for women.

The report outlines how current policies have failed to reflect the extra challenges that women entrepreneurs face – including childcare responsibilities, gender bias and access to finance – and how the Government has failed to introduce measures to facilitate their survival and growth.

The WEPG is a national coalition of leading women entrepreneurs, researchers, business support providers and social entrepreneurs from across the UK. The group develops policy calls based on the latest evidence and years of experience supporting women’s enterprise creation and growth.

The group is now urging the Chancellor to bring them to the policy table to help shape policy that ‘Builds Back Better’ for women entrepreneurs, for the economy, and for society.

Dr Nicola Patterson is a senior lecturer at Newcastle University Business School, a member of the Women’s Enterprise Policy Group and co-chair of Gender Entrepreneurship North (GENE) – a collaborative space initiated by Newcastle University, with International Consultants for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). She said: “If enterprise policy fails to recognise and support women now, then it will have a catastrophic economic impact. The strongest economies are those built on a diverse and inclusive range of talents. Gender responsive policy reform is critical now to ensure the UK economy does indeed ‘build back better’.”

Professor Julia Rouse, co-chair of the WEPG and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “As our report shows, women running businesses have faced acute pressures during COVID-19. We know that women tend to trade in sectors that do more face-to-face work – for example, as carers, in hospitality and tourism or as beauticians – and that means their trade is only coming back slowly and is vulnerable to local lockdowns. Add to this school and nursery closures, and the threat of ‘bubbles’ and consequently support networks bursting when these re-open fully, and you can see the scale of the challenge.

“What is more, many women are excluded from proper income protection due to gaps in current schemes. The Government is facing legal action for disadvantaging self-employed women who took maternity leave in years prior to the pandemic under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Looking at the picture for women who are directors of small firms, the main form of support they have been offered is through loans, but without any targeted marketing to women business owners who are typically more cautious about risking family security via business loans.

“The question we now must ask is whether the Chancellor fully understands the extent of these issues and whether he is committed to supporting women’s enterprise? There is already a huge gender gap in entrepreneurship across the UK – only about a third of all small firms are led by women. Equality simply cannot wait until the pandemic passes because Covid-19 is causing further inequality. Now is the time to develop practical policy that supports women business owners: any later could well be too late. That’s why we are calling on Rishi Sunak to bring us to the policy table to avoid the disaster of thousands of failed businesses at Christmas time and catastrophic economic impact.”

The WEPG has put forward a framework of policy actions to Government, which they say will ‘build back better’ for women’s enterprise. These asks are around six key areas:

Finance: Income Protection, including: 

– Extend the eligibility of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) for new traders and the part-time self-employed and exclude maternity periods from payment calculations.

– Compensate Business Directors for lost dividends.

Finance: Grants, Loans & Investment, including: 

– Introduce an Equality Impact Assessment to monitor the equity of all Coronavirus grant and loan funds, looking particularly at gender, ethnicity, disability, and age.

– Address the causes of likely lower take-up by women: business structure, caution, and gender bias.

Valuing Women-Led Sectors: 

– Give due value to the economic contribution of sectors such as early years/childcare and the beauty and wellbeing industry in lockdown decisions and investment programmes.

Business Support: Time and Space to Enable Women Entrepreneurs to Pivot, including: 

– Ensure that enterprise ecosystems include women’s enterprise support and specialist or inclusive programmes for BAME women.

– Publicly record and monitor the scale and quality of provision to women and BAME business founders and owners as part of an Equality Impact Assessment and meeting a Gender Equality Duty.

Business Start-Up: Founding Vibrant Women-Led Businesses, including: 

– Invest in innovative approaches to business start-up that will enable women to form team-led enterprises, trade in higher productivity sectors, garner business resources and be enterprising.

– Respect slower, part-time founding (e.g. extending the exemption period for Universal Credit’s minimum income floor).

Invest in a Care Infrastructure: It Will ‘Build Back Better’ More Productively Than ‘Build, Build, Build’, including: 

– Properly value the keywork of social care businesses and radically expand supply by fixing long-term problems of inadequate commissioning that result in low pay and conditions.

– Urgently protect social and private early years businesses

– Investing in expanding the childcare sector to create jobs, close gender employment gaps and support the 600,000 mothers who are self-employed or business owners.

Alongside academics from Newcastle University, members of the WEPG include representatives from the University of Liverpool, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Birmingham, the University of Nottingham, and the University of South Wales. Representation from women’s business support comes from The Women’s Organisation, Women’s Enterprise Scotland, Women in Business NI, ICE, GrowBiz and Radiant and Brighter CIC.