How is COVID-19 affecting women entrepreneurs in Scotland?

Background

This blog was written by Dr Norin Arshed of the University of Dundee, as part of a Fellowship with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre. The analysis and conclusions are made by the author.

This blog summarises the emerging themes from ongoing research to understand the challenges women entrepreneurs in Scotland face from COVID-19. It follows 11 focus groups with women entrepreneurs across six regions of Scotland. A further 12 women entrepreneurs are currently engaging in monthly interviews, who are also included in the analysis of emerging evidence.

The COVID-19 crisis represents an existential threat to many women-owned firms, and generally women entrepreneurs face greater challenges than men during this pandemic. For example, women tend to work in sectors disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and social-distancing (e.g. hospitality, personal services and non-food retail) – these businesses were the first to close and last to re-open. Women are also frequently restricted due to gendered caring responsibilities for sick or isolating relatives, home-schooling children and nursery closures. Given that Scotland is currently experiencing its third lockdown since March 2020, it seems possible that many businesses will not survive.

However, there are several findings from the initial analysis which not only highlight challenges but also opportunities that have been raised by women entrepreneurs during the pandemic. The impacts of the pandemic have exacerbated pre-existing challenges for women which include:

(1) women entrepreneurs are facing financial challenges where the lack of information to access opportunities and the design and delivery of financial support has not been suitable;

(2) they are struggling to juggle family life and their businesses; and

(3) women entrepreneurs are feeling discriminated against and delegitimised in their roles by enterprise agencies providing business support and advice.

The opportunities that have arisen from the current environment involve:

(4) major commitments from the women entrepreneurs are being made to communities regardless of the fragile situation of their own businesses;

(5) one-sided pro bono work is being undertaken to maintain relationships, to build future collaborations and to ensure reputations of their businesses are protected; and

(6) women entrepreneurs have been upskilling.

Women’s entrepreneurship in Scotland

It is estimated (pre-pandemic) that 21% of Scotland’s 339,000 small to medium sized enterprises are majority-led by women and a further 22% are equally led by women and men. Men are still almost twice as likely to start businesses as women. Furthermore, women-owned businesses in Scotland account for 13% (231,390 jobs) of the private sector total employment. 

Scottish men are much more likely to be their own boss than their female counterparts. The number of men in Scotland who are self-employed increased from 181,000 in 2004 to 218,400 in 2018. Whereas, the number of women who are self-employed increased steadily from 66,200 in 2004 to 113,700 in 2016 and has decreased over the years to 102,900 in 2018. In addition, women-led businesses are more likely to comprise younger sole traders, operate from home, be in the service sector, have lower average turnover and employment, and are less likely to own more than one business.

Data collection

The 11 focus groups (five start-up focus groups and six growth focus groups) took place in October and November 2020. There were 71 participants from various regions in Scotland, including: Glasgow City, Aberdeen City, Inverness and Highland, Stirling and Clackmannanshire, Edinburgh and South East Scotland, and Tay Cities.

All focus groups and individual interviews for the 12 case studies were recorded (with permission). All participants signed (or were recorded verbally agreeing) to participate in the study and to remain anonymous in any subsequent reporting.

It should be noted that these findings are based on rigorous qualitative research protocols.  The aim is not to generalise the findings to all women entrepreneurs.  Instead, the study seeks to help the sample of women entrepreneurs tell their stories in ways that others may learn from.

Emerging findings

The emerging findings highlight not only the challenges faced by the women entrepreneurs but the opportunities that arose because of the pandemic. The challenges are nothing new and have existed for women entrepreneurs for decades. So, what are they?

Access to finance

Evidence suggested that women entrepreneurs (start-up stages or early stages) are having difficulty accessing finance to continue their businesses.   Both the start-up and growth women entrepreneurs highlighted that although there was financial support available, this was often ‘one size fits all’ with many unable to claim funding. Reasons included that they had not been a business for more than a year (start-ups) and therefore could not evidence their financial statements and could not apply for any funding.

Specific to women entrepreneurs was that while they typically made use of the Bounce Back Loan they did not want to borrow anything in addition to this, in fear of debt and were using personal savings rather than borrowing in the first instance:

“What I’ve been doing is living, paying myself out of savings this year and letting all the money that is coming into the business, you know, it’s kind of been a bit of a trickle, there’s been two months where there was no earnings at all…” (Stirling and Clackmannanshire, growth focus group).

“So I haven’t relied on a loan, but I’m thinking… luckily I have a little bit of savings from selling my previous house before I moved and I’m living on my savings to keep me going” (Inverness and Highlands, growth focus group).

In addition, the sectors that were unable to remain financially viable are dominated by women, like the hospitality sector, tourism, beauty and retail. The following quote highlights the funding issues for women entrepreneurs who felt because of the type of business and sector they were in; enterprise agencies were not very supportive:

“Those ideas [for example, hiring] are going to require a certain investment that I was not planning to make, and because funding is almost inaccessible right now, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to survive…I have been looking to regional entrepreneurship help programs, they pretty much told me there’s no funding now, don’t look at it” (Aberdeen City, start-up focus group).

 

Balancing work and family life

The second challenge was the hardship of juggling caring and home-schooling duties with trying to run a business. These duties, often, fall on women. Again, this is nothing new but has only been amplified by the pandemic. Many of the women have had to put aside their businesses to try and fulfil their family and caring duties. They have also felt that the support on offer is discriminatory and often delegitimised their business, because they are juggling their home and private lives with running their business. For example, one woman said:

“Indirect discrimination of a lot the funding that’s out there actually ends up going to male-led businesses. It’s not men’s fault or women’s fault, it’s just that’s how it happens” (Glasgow City, growth focus group).

“I think there has been discrimination in terms of not really taking into account people’s circumstances now [referring to women juggling home and business life]” (Tay Cities, growth focus group).

There are further indications that women entrepreneurs did not feel like they were taken seriously:

“I have been told ‘Oh no, you don’t qualify; you’re not the right business; Oh, you haven’t filled that form in absolutely correctly’” (Inverness and Highlands, growth focus-group).

The individual felt that this was down to her business being in the service industry and she was not being taken seriously. After a while she gave up trying to access funding and decided to rely on her husband for support.

Opportunities through the gloom

However, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. Many women discussed upskilling opportunities.  Although, they had to balance their family life and caring duties with their businesses, the move to online allowed them to access support, courses, webinars etc. that were impossible before. They were able to undertake courses and attend sessions and webinars in their own time. Many also indicated that this allowed them time to learn marketing skills, to improve their digital skills and their bookkeeping. The time that would have previously spent commuting, allowed them flexibility on when and where they logged on and learned:

“A huge amount of free classes and webinars from networks on LinkedIn, the opportunity to learn and participate has never been better” (Edinburgh and South East of Scotland, start-up focus group).

“So, I’ve spent an awful lot of time this year teaching myself virtual, going on webinars to learn how to do it as a virtual thing, what are the top tips for that, who can enter the virtual platforms…” (Stirling and Clackmannanshire, growth focus group).

“I want to learn more. So, I’ve had extra expense and having to learn more things by having to go online and do other courses or other things to help me adapt because I’m still adapting” (Tay Cities, growth focus group).

Many of the women also tended to build solidarity with their communities and regions, through reaching out to others in business to offer support, or to their communities. The compassion and empathy from the women entrepreneurs highlighted a further role outside the home and some decided to pivot their businesses to cater for their communities:

“Trying to do a lot of this networking to understand what communities need, in order to build our social impact arm” (Edinburgh and South East of Scotland, start-up focus group).

“A lot of my work interfaces with community development and design… I suppose work at the grass roots level to try and get design projects off the ground locally and work in partnership a lot with people” (Inverness and Highlands, start-up focus group).

A final emerging theme which applied to both start-ups and growth businesses was that the women entrepreneurs were moving to pro bono work to continue their existing relationships with clients and customers, looking to collaborating in future and strengthening their reputations. However, this led to many of those providing pro bono work to be doing more than they would have, had they been paid for their work. The women felt that not only would they be strengthening their relationship with the client, but they would also be supporting their client in their time of need:

“Well, I think weirdly some of the opportunities, like the business demand for some of my services in terms of design consultations, which are free, went up. So I kind of thought, “Oh, great.” But a lot of it was pro bono stuff” (Inverness and Highlands, start-up group).

Conclusions

Some of the challenges that women entrepreneurs are facing during the pandemic are not new, these challenges have historically existed but have been amplified by the crisis. The evidence gathered indicates that a transparent and relevant structure of support, specific to women’s enterprise, could be a useful tool in tackling the impact of the pandemic. My next blog looks at the enterprise agencies involved in delivering support to women entrepreneurs and explores their challenges and opportunities with their services during the pandemic.

Dr Norin Arshed, School of Business, University of Dundee

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