• The social entrepreneurship sector has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders in its field.
  • Female entrepreneurs can add substantially to economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • To shape a sustainable and inclusive recovery from COVID-19, we need to include the voices of female social entrepreneurs.

Whether it has been New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern or Germany under Angela Merkel, studies have shown that female-led countries have performed better in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report report, it will take 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation. Progress in economic participation and opportunity has regressed, with the deteriorating situation forcing gender parity to a lowly 57.8%, which in terms of time represents a massive 257 years before gender parity can be achieved.

It’s also a well-documented fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit women harder. Women have been affected not only because of the disease itself, but because they work in jobs that are less secure. Furthermore, women-owned businesses have particularly suffered – in Canada alone, 40.6% of women-owned businesses have had to lay off their employees. The situation for racialized, indigenous, newcomer, and disabled women is even worse.

2020 has shown us both the disproportionate burden of inequality on girls and women, as well as the exceptional leadership of many incredible women around the world.

Social entrepreneurship empowers women leaders

Women in social entrepreneurship often disrupt many of these patterns of gender inequality. The social entrepreneurship sector has proven itself uniquely capable of empowering women leaders in its field, and of changing the lives and welfare of all women.

Women social entrepreneurs have, time and time again, made a deep impact in their work through a form of impact called “scaling deep” - overhauling unfair and unjust systems, sparking collaborative social movements, and reshaping dominant expectations, norms, and stigmas. Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship is currently working to change the innovation ecosystem to better recognize and support scaling deep impact and the women leading it.

Ashoka’s 2018 Global Impact Study found that its female Fellows work within systems and are more likely to spread their idea locally, inspiring replication by other groups or institutions within their country of residency.

Female Fellows were also found to be more collaborative, working closely with other citizen-sector organizations, supporting other women and young people around them, and empowering their own teams. They also reflected a higher tendency to impact behaviours and mindsets: 76% of female Fellows reported influencing societal attitudes and cultural norms as core to their strategy, compared with a lower percentage of males.

The World Bank highlights how through such work and leadership styles, female entrepreneurs can add substantially to economic growth and poverty reduction.

“A man who heads a nonprofit is considered heroic or enlightened, whereas I’ve been patronised numerous times as the charity worker.”

—Kristine Pearson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Lifeline Energy

Lack of support for female social entrepreneurs

“Social entrepreneurship, at its core, is rooted in justice, equity, humanity, and empathy, with a spirit of resilience and strength in the face of adversity. Yet, as a sector, it is still a reflection of patriarchy in global systems and local communities alike,” says François Bonnici, Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Multiple studies and research have indicated that the most common challenges shared by women social entrepreneurs are that their sector is heavily dominated by men, that they were discriminated against based on their appearance, that they were not listened to nor given decision-making power in group situations, and that fundraising and networking were easier for their male colleagues. It is crucial to note that the racialized, indigenous and disabled tend to encounter such challenges more frequently.

One of the primary reasons for this is that entrepreneurial success has traditionally been defined in the male-dominated social sector as producing initiatives that follow a franchise model, measuring impact based on the number of people reached and the amount of wealth accrued. This ignores projects that affect laws and policies, and influence mindsets, cultures, and systems – the sort of impacts often led by women social entrepreneurs.

“A man who heads a nonprofit is considered heroic or enlightened, whereas I’ve been patronised numerous times as the charity worker,” says Kristine Pearson, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Lifeline Energy.

Furthermore, there is a lack of funding for female social entrepreneurs. According to Echoing Green’s “State of Social Entrepreneurship 2020” report, among US social entrepreneurs who apply to their fellowship, “male applicants tend to raise more funds than female applicants overall and on average, despite being a smaller proportion of the applicant pool”.

This status quo has also affected the way young girls grow up, building an atmosphere that praises quantitative forms of success, surrounded by media spotlights that often elevate male-dominated narratives of entrepreneurial leadership.

“Eight out of every 10 media reports worldwide are about men: only two of them have women as their focus. So, are there really fewer interesting women? Or do men just make for better stories? There seems to be a general consensus that ‘no’ is the firm answer to both these questions,” says Dr Annabella Bassler, Chief Financial Officer of the Ringier Group and initiator of the EqualVoice initiative, which aims to raise the visibility of women in reporting.

The lack of visibility for women in leadership roles and of their deeply impactful initiatives contributes to a culture where young girls are not encouraged to develop entrepreneurial skills or pursue leadership positions in social entrepreneurship or otherwise.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators are addressing the world’s most serious and entrenched challenges, ranging from illiteracy to clean water and sanitation, girls’ education, prison reform, financial inclusion and disaster relief.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 leading social innovators operating in over 190 countries.

Since its foundation in 1998, a total of 722 million lives have been directly improved by the work of this community of leading social innovators.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions and World Economic Forum constituents are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators.

Visit the Schwab Foundation website for more information about the award process and the selection criteria.

Hearing the voices of female social entrepreneurs

We are at an historic crossroads, managing short-term pressures against medium- and long-term uncertainties. To shape a sustainable and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, we need to include the voices of female social entrepreneurs who have decades of experience in changing systems and creating lasting impacts.

While multiple organizations are working on gender parity in the space of social entrepreneurship, there seems to be a lack of a consolidated and coordinated approach in addressing the specific needs of and requests by female social entrepreneurs. This is a systemic-level problem that deserves a systemic-level solution.

A more gender-balanced system of social entrepreneurship promises not only to be fairer, but will also generate more impact. Systemic social problems can only be solved collaboratively across silos, whether they be sectors, institutions, geographies, classes, or identities. Tackling poverty at a local or regional level, for instance, requires that government, health, education, business, and many other sectors work together.

A more gender-balanced social innovation ecosystem will lead to more systemic approaches in social entrepreneurship. In such a scenario, not only do female social entrepreneurs thrive, but the world does, too.

“When we reframe the definition of success in a way that better includes and celebrates women social entrepreneurs, we curate an ecosystem that is more likely to inspire and nurture women changemakers,” says Iman Bibars, founder, Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship, Ashoka.

For this reason, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, in coordination with Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship, and Catalyst 2030, are launching the Bold Action for Women in Social Entrepreneurship – a collective effort to address these different dimensions of inequity experienced uniquely by female social entrepreneurs by taking an intersectional approach and, thereby, better addressing gender-based issues which prevail in our societies.

The initiative brings together the leading voices in the social innovation ecosystem and eventually businesses, government, international organisations, cultural leaders, and all those who rally behind female-led social entrepreneurship.