• The pandemic is widening existing inequalities for women.

• Female entrepreneurs need access to finance, digital tools and skills.

• Putting women in leadership positions will help dismantle the socio-economic obstacles that hold them back.

On any given day, running a business as a woman is an uphill battle. From pay inequity to unpaid care and restricted access to funding and financial services, the barriers for women-owned micro, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have always been unacceptably high.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the price of ignoring such disparities – and forced business, government and non-profits to examine how the systems in our society perpetuate inequality. During 2020, millions of women left the workforce, businesses shuttered and savings dried up. And now as the pandemic accelerates the move toward a digital economy, women risk being left farther behind if we do not intervene with support and greater access to digital tools.

In low- and middle-income countries, there are up to 35 million formal MSMEs and 124 million informal MSMEs with at least one female owner. To ensure these women entrepreneurs can survive and thrive in the digital economy, they need access to three critical enablers: capital, digital tools and skills, and a supportive environment so they can access and use these tools to their fullest.

Give women access and skills

“E-commerce is the new knowledge which small businesses are lacking,” says Nguyen Thi Hien, age 26. Hien took over her family business in Hanoi, Vietnam, which produces and sells pork products, and was on a steep learning curve when COVID-19 hit. Much of her business is face to face; as her wholesale clients dried up, she realized she needed to turn to online retail sales to survive. But she faced two big barriers. She needed capital and the skills in online commerce to expand to new markets.

She is not alone. In low- and middle-income countries, more than 300 million fewer women than men access the internet on a cellphone, the preferred method of conducting online business.

Hien joined the Ignite programme to help her pivot to digital. A partnership between CARE and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Ignite supports growth-oriented women entrepreneurs by opening up much-needed access to financial and digital resources, while building their business capacity and networks. The programme takes a holistic, multifaceted approach to connecting women to the resources and networks they need to remain resilient and grow.

For Hien, Ignite provided just what she needed. “I feel that the courses were designed in a short, concise, and time-saving manner, yet they covered the exact topics I needed,” she said.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women
The pandemic has disproportionately impacted women
Image: CARE

Break down gender barriers

Underlying the access challenges are socio-economic obstacles that penalize women entrepreneurs: time poverty, harmful gender norms and unpaid care, to name a few. Initiatives to expand financial access and support women in developing their digital skills will have limited impact unless we proactively address these often invisible but substantial barriers.

For that to happen, we must listen to and involve women throughout the process of developing innovative solutions around access, products and services. Ultimately, the real upending of the status quo will only happen when women are in leadership positions, taking their rightful place alongside male leaders.

Actions for leaders

To drive inclusive digitalization, we must look holistically at women’s lives to see what is holding them back. The list of barriers is long, but the obstacles are not inevitable. A female digital revolution is possible. Working in partnership with governments and local communities, we can systematically tackle these barriers and the current fragile state of women’s engagement in the economy, especially the digital economy.

Building toward more sustainable and inclusive economies is everyone’s responsibility.

  • Governments must work to create a favourable environment for women-led small and micro businesses, including lowering the cost to and risk in lending to women, ensuring connectivity and internet access is a public good, and enacting policies that promote women’s socio-economic autonomy.
  • The private sector must recognize the business case for gender equity, designing new products with a gender lens and ensuring women are included in the design process.
  • Financial service providers must expand women’s access to capital by reassessing risk models that exclude them and creating new ones based on more holistic data. They can introduce digital channels for lending and hire more female staff in leadership roles.
  • Civil society must recognize women’s economic aspirations, and engage men and boys in supporting women’s leadership of micro and small businesses.
  • Everyone must be willing to go beyond traditional models of partnerships.

By adopting a human-centric, market-based approach to supporting women entrepreneurs, we can ensure sustainable change that makes both business and social sense for private-sector partners and women entrepreneurs alike.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

This pandemic presents us with an opportunity to reimagine how those in the financial and digital ecosystems can support and finance women entrepreneurs so that they can become valued customers and recognized leaders in the recovery. What will you do to build back equal?