While much progress has been made toward building a more equitable business environment in terms of gender, women entrepreneurs still face several significant barriers. The prevailing inequalities were most recently brought to light by well-documented findings that women business owners were impacted more materially by COVID-19 than their male counterparts. The key to solving this disparity lies in creating a more enabling environment for women operating in the SME sector.
This is according to Betty Dube, Executive Head of Marketing at MiWay, who believes that despite these challenges, South Africa is on a positive trajectory towards greater gender equality in its small business sector. “Great strides are being made in the realm of entrepreneurship. According to the latest Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs Index (MIWE), South Africa’s rankings have improved over the last year, both in terms of the cultural perceptions of women entrepreneurs and their competitiveness.”
She explains that South Africa also performed relatively well in terms of the progress women have made, despite a degree of marginalisation as business leaders, professionals, entrepreneurs, and labour force participants. “It’s important that we recognise and acknowledge these areas of improvement, while also honing our efforts on formulating practical solutions to the hurdles that still need to be overcome.”
A matter of rands and cents
Arguably, the greatest of these challenges is a lack of access to finance and capital. A research paper published by the Vaal University of Technology found that inadequate financial resources and working capital lie at the crux of why many women entrepreneurs struggle to enter the market. Access to credit and business funding is often stymied by the fact that women are less likely to own property they can use as collateral when applying for loans. In this regard, the financial services sector and lenders will play a pivotal role in fostering much-needed financial inclusion and equality of opportunity.
The need for legal support
The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2021/2022 Women’s Entrepreneurship Report found that on the African continent in particular, women need more enabling policies that can support them in scaling their businesses and creating an environment for long-term, sustainable growth.
Adding to this point, Dube asserts that in South Africa, excessive red tape and the complex legislation governing business operations are two of the most important setbacks that need to be tackled. She also believes that business insurance providers, as industry experts and SME partners, are in a good position to help women navigate the legalities of doing business.
“For example, as part of MiWay’s MiBusinessAssist support service, we offer legal advice and labour-related guidance. This allows our clients to access expert advice on matters such as risk management, union negotiations, and retrenchments. This type of support can be a lifeline when internal disputes arise, or entrepreneurs need help with entering into legal agreements.”
Tender-related support is also invaluable to entrepreneurs in South Africa, she explains. “By assisting clients in this regard, we can eliminate some of the administrative burden involved with applying for tenders and assist business owners in compiling the necessary documentation.”
The importance of investing in peer support
According to the GEM Report, on average, only 47.2% of women reported knowing an entrepreneur, compared to 53% of men. Women entrepreneurs are therefore also in need of practical examples that demonstrate the ability of women to excel within the entrepreneurial space – champions of industry who can serve as role models. This is particularly true within male-dominated industries, where women can benefit immensely from a confidence boost and real examples of other women who have chartered a way forward, despite the prevailing hurdles.
For Dube, these findings highlight the importance of aspiring women entrepreneurs building a healthy support system by engaging in networking opportunities and actively reaching out to industry peers for advice and mentorship.
‘Women need to be encouraged to make valuable connections and interface with the people who have realised their business goals and can provide guidance to do the same. Building relationships takes time, effort, and resources, but when it becomes a focal point, relationships can become building blocks for longevity as a businessperson, particularly in highly competitive markets,” she concludes.