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Why we need a Women's Employment and Enterprise Challenge Fund

Last week I wrote here about the ways that the next Scottish Government could enable businesses to make progress on women’s equality. This would not only be beneficial to women in Scotland, but also to their own reputation and profits.

This week I’m writing about the separate, but related issue of the lack of support for women who want to start their own business, or need support to enter or stay in employment. Closing the gender enterprise gap and targeting employability at women is necessary if we are to see inclusive growth.

In Scotland, men are almost twice as likely to start businesses as women. Compared to other high income countries, our rates of female business ownership are relatively low. If the number of female owned businesses grew to equal men, we would have an additional 108,480 businesses, bringing a 5.3% growth to the Scottish economy.

It has to be said here, that Engender is fairly critical of the idea of growth for growth’s sake – we are concerned with equality within the economy rather than simply the size. But there are many reasons aside from growth that women want, and may need, to start their own businesses. For example, mainstream employment may not offer women the flexibility to juggle work with the caring responsibilities which still fall mainly on women’s shoulders.

While Scotland offers a fair amount of support for setting up your own business, these are not designed around the needs of women, and the different development patterns of women-owned businesses. This means that business support is not doing enough to help women start, sustain, and grow businesses. While there are some small women-specific initiatives in Scotland, these need to be resourced and replicated across the country.

As with business support, Scotland has lots of employability schemes designed to help people enter and stay in the labour market. And, as with business support, very few of these engage with gender and offer support specifically to women. Women’s experience of employment and the labour market is starkly different from men’s, with lack of flexible and part-time work, fewer training opportunities and other discriminations meaning women can face multiple barriers to finding and staying in work.

Without programmes designed to recognise these barriers, and Scotland’s only women-focused employability service Women onto Work closing its doors last year, women are not finding the effective support they need. This is not only damaging to women but also to Scotland’s economy, which needs the skills and experiences women have to offer. To give one example, the police force is keen to become more diverse, and yet a six week residential training course is a critical part of the training. This presents a huge barrier to women providing care for children or relatives.

Engender is calling for political parties to commit a £50m Women’s Employment and Enterprise Challenge Fund. This is a small amount of money, but it could be used to create programmes and pilot projects that would demonstrate the benefit of a gender-sensitive approach. Experience has shown that the most effective types of support are those which recognise the barriers faced by specific groups and offer targeted programmes. A great example of this is the One Step Close project which worked specifically with refugee and asylum seeking women and offered support including help understanding the often jargonistic language of job descriptions and interview skills. It also offered childcare and travel expenses, thereby removing the barriers some women face in even accessing support where it exists.

The Women’s Employment and Enterprise Challenge Fund would help reduce the inequality between women and men in business-ownership and employment. It would allow Scottish workplaces to utilise the skills of women, help Scotland achieve inclusive growth, and narrow the gender pay gap.

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