SOC Section Meeting Debate - Follow the money, increasing access to finance for women entrepreneurs

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Dear guests,
Dear members,

It is my pleasure to open today's debate that is organised in the context of the preparation of the opinion on "Gender lens investing as a way to improve gender equality in the EU". I would like to especially thank our great speakers and EESC rapporteurs Ms Ody Neisingh and Ms Maria Nikolopoulou, who will share with us the main recommendations stemming from the opinion we are debating today.

Before diving into today's subject, let me tell you a story. Back in the 1960s, the English tech pioneer Steve Shirley founded a software business that grew to employ 8,500 mostly female programmers. The company was eventually valued at over $3 billion, making millionaires 70 of her team members. Why am I telling you this story, you may ask? Because Steve's real name is actually Dame Stephanie Shirley. She used a pseudonym to overcome the widespread gender bias in business at the time. With a male-sounding first name, things just moved more swiftly.

While women entrepreneurs are not forced to conceal their identity anymore, women represent only about 34.4% of the EU self-employed and 30% of start-up entrepreneurs. Male culture dominates the business world, so the criteria you are judged by lead to very different outcomes, depending on whether you're a woman or a man. Women entrepreneurs in the EU face difficulties in access to information, access to networks for business purposes, networking and reconciling business and family concerns. They have a higher risk of in-work poverty and are confronted with gender stereotyping in investment evaluations, preventing them from accessing financing. As an example, all-male founded teams receive almost the totality of all venture capital invested in Europe.

To make matters worse, women entrepreneurs were more impacted by the pandemic, due to the unequal distribution of care responsibilities and the lack of childcare services during lockdown. This also had a negative impact on their access to finance. Removing these obstacles is not only an issue of equality but it matters for a really hard-headed reason as well. Businesses with women in decision-making positions are proven to have better governance styles, which encourage diversity and innovative thinking.

At a time when we are confronted with unprecedented challenges – a war at our doorsteps, the demographic change, the impact of the twin ecological and digital transitions, we certainly need innovative and sustainable solutions to our increasingly turbulent world. Entrepreneurs are an essential part of the solution towards a competitive, green and socially inclusive EU economy. We need to empower them to reach their full potential, regardless of their gender. Only then can Europe act as a frontrunner, to be emulated by the rest of the world, and ensure that nobody is left behind.

As part of my work as EESC President, I have the privilege of meeting many inspiring women entrepreneurs, who are making the most of their businesses. And yet, many of them suffer from "impostor syndrome": they doubt their abilities and feel they are not good enough at what they do. This is really regrettable. Women entrepreneurs should be empowered to take more calculated risks — and this requires confidence and business skills. Education and training opportunities and having role models are crucial to build an entrepreneurial culture that prepares women to think big.

As recommended also in our recent opinion on gender equality, access to both private financing and public funding is absolutely crucial to support female entrepreneurship. The proposal of the Commission to launch a gender-smart financing initiative to stimulate funding for women-led companies is a step in the right direction. It is also important to review the criteria of all relevant EU funding instruments, such as the Recovery and Resilience Facility, to promote equality in entrepreneurship, and encourage investment in projects that enhance gender equality.

In addition, further incentives for business transfers for female entrepreneurs should be developed, to increase the number of women entrepreneurs, which is currently too low. Such incentives could include awareness-raising, advisory services and mentoring. Access to finance is often not just a question of resources, but also of the entrepreneur's experience, competence and trustworthiness. That's why such incentives are so important: they allow women to diversify their contacts and grow their business.

More broadly, we need to dismantle the gender stereotypes behind these persisting inequalities, starting from an early age. It is important to nurture a lifelong gender equality culture, encompassing all stages and areas of life.  Real change requires recognition, ownership and constant commitment by all actors of society. I strongly believe that it is our shared responsibility to make opportunity possible for all. Fostering female entrepreneurship means not only opening doors to women, but also encouraging them to walk through.

Over the past decades, we have made undeniable progress towards gender equality in all fields. Women today have opportunities that our mothers and grandmothers could only have dreamed of. But we should also recognise how much more work we need to do to achieve a truly gender equal society. I’m as conscious of this, even in my position, as any other woman. I have the honour of being the fifth female president of this Committee, yet the world I live and work in is still predominantly male. Therefore, I count on our many male allies, in this Committee and beyond, to renew their commitment to gender equality. Only together, we can build a Europe where women have the same opportunities to contribute to our economy and society. Where all the brilliant Stephanie Shirleys of today's Europe are not pressured to conceal their femininity to succeed.

I am very glad to introduce such a diverse panel of speakers, and I wish you all a fruitful debate on the topic. Thank you for your attention! Ms Maceira, you have the floor!


SOC Section Meeting Debate - Follow the Money, increasing access to finance for women entrepreneurs.