Canada needs a policy framework to support women entrepreneurs.
On June 9, 2017, the Canadian federal government launched Canada’s first Feminist International Assistance Policy. In May, Chancellor Angela Merkel revealed that she is working with Ivanka Trump and the World Bank to establish a fund for women entrepreneurs in developing countries, which the Government of Canada is now a $20M investee. While it may be politically expedient to jump on board with this new investment fund, Canada must first put its domestic policy agenda about supporting women entrepreneurs in order.
Supporting women’s economic potential fits Canada’s emerging identity. A feminist prime minister, a gender-balanced cabinet, and a “Gender Statement” in Budget 2017 have catapulted Canada onto the world stage of inclusive politics. Canada has historically led the world in equality policy and legislation for employees. This is not the case with respect to supporting women entrepreneurs, however. Despite numerous studies and industry reports calling for policy reform, there remain no federal policies to guide domestic decisions or inform spending.
Unlike the United States, Canada has no legislated mechanism to support an advisory council focused on issues of importance to women business owners. There remains no oversight or accountability to report on the engagement of women in federally funded small business, innovation, or technology accelerators. Within government, conflicting agency mandates and perspectives about the importance of women entrepreneurs have stifled investment. Gender-based audits mandated by legislation are ignored. New policies are replicating historical investment patterns in industries in which women entrepreneurs are under-represented. For example, new federal investment in artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies, including efforts to attract women into STEM, miss the target for the vast majority of Canadian women. A Gender Statement in the federal budget is simply that, a statement.
The World Bank and OECD have cited the economic costs of the gender gap in entrepreneurship policy. In June 2017, McKinsey Global Institute & Company Canada released “The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Canada,” citing women’s entrepreneurship as a leading gender gap. The report calls for the Canadian government to “reenergize progress toward gender parity,” noting that at the current rate of progress, it will take approximately 180 years to reach gender equity. Recommendations include a national association that focuses on skill-building, mentoring, and networking opportunities for female entrepreneurs and the need for incubators and accelerators to adopt a targeted approach to attract female entrepreneur applicants. These same recommendations have been cited by numerous task forces and industry organizations.
There has never been a better time to invest resources to bolster the contributions of women, at home and abroad. The recently announced “Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders” can learn from existing regional pockets of excellence, such as the Women’s Enterprise Initiative in Western Canada. However, no amount of consultation, research, or feminist flag-waving will address the cultural bias that is deeply ingrained within Canada’s male-centric entrepreneurship ecosystem. Science Minister Kirsty Duncan has threatened universities with less funding for research chairs if they don’t meet equity targets. It is time for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains, Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, and Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef to assemble a policy framework to support women entrepreneurs. Federally funded small business, innovation, and technology accelerators must also be required to demonstrate equity or face similar funding cuts. An economic growth agenda is not complete when it leaves women’s innovative and economic contributions on the sidelines.
We call upon Canadian women entrepreneurs and those who support women entrepreneurs with their capital, networks, and expertise to make your voices heard to our politicians and policymakers. A Canadian women’s enterprise policy framework is long overdue.
Barbara Orser is a Full Professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa and co-author of Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2015).
Publisher’s note: Canadian females fully or partially own 391,455 small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In addition, in 2017 there are over one million (1,013,000) female self-employed workers. Source: (2016) Labour Force Survey and (2014) Survey of Financing and Growth of SMEs. There is currently no advocacy voice dedicated to the advancement of women entrepreneurs politically, socially and economically in Canada.