women entrepreneurs

With fewer women entrepreneurs, economies suffer

March 6, 2020 | By Deborah Heng

This article was originally published on The Business Times.

The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs finds plenty of opportunities for women in Singapore to succeed, but challenges remain that hold women back while having broader economic implications.

ENTREPRENEURS play a fundamental role in creating jobs, advancing innovation, and introducing new products and services that often make our lives better.

While Singapore's push for entrepreneurship has resulted in an increase in the number of people starting their own businesses, these gains have been seen mostly among men. In contrast, the entrepreneurial activity rate among women in Singapore has fallen recently, down 22 per cent from 2018.

If essentially half of the adult population is falling behind in their pursuit of developing new businesses, this doesn't just have implications for women as individuals - it means that, as a society, we're potentially missing out on groundbreaking ideas.

There are also consequences for the macroeconomy. According to research from McKinsey Global Institute, increasing gender equality in Singapore's workforce could add S$26 billion to the country's GDP by 2025.

That leap stems from the tendency for diverse management teams to outperform on profitability and value creation, alongside boosted participation in the labour force.

The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) looks into issues such as these by examining publicly available data to track the progress and achievements of women entrepreneurs and business owners in 58 markets around the world - representing 80 per cent of the global female workforce. Multiple indicators contribute to the development of the Index's rankings: Women's Advancement Outcomes (e.g. labour force participation rates), Knowledge Assets & Financial Access (e.g. tertiary education enrolment and support for SMEs) and Supporting Entrepreneurial Conditions (e.g. ease of doing business, cultural norms and governance).

What the Index reveals is that, though women in Singapore make up 44 per cent of the nation's workforce - close to half - they only make up 26.3 per cent of all business owners, while the number of male entrepreneurs is increasing much faster than that of their female counterparts. That gap means a loss in the innovation that these entrepreneurs can bring to the table, which may be holding Singapore back.

Resources can help inclusiveness - but they're only one piece of the puzzle

Compared to their counterparts around the globe, at least on paper, women in Singapore are well-placed to pursue entrepreneurship.

The Index ranks the market second in Asia behind only Taiwan, the result of a combination of factors such as a high-income economy, access to financial services uninhibited by law or social customs, and world-class business regulation and practices.

Singapore also ranks first in the world for equality in access to higher education.

Meanwhile, there is substantial assistance for SMEs through government-supported initiatives. For example, the Infocomm Media Development Authority's Start Digital pack offers tools for up-and-coming entrepreneurs to digitally manage processes like payroll, accounting and digital marketing.

The Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG), an initiative from Enterprise Singapore, boosts SMEs' access to government agency-approved digital solutions to enhance business processes in areas including customer management, data analytics and financial management.

Additionally, the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO) is working to close the gender gap through a number of initiatives, such as BoardAgender, which aims to get more women into the boardroom and into senior leadership roles, and Women's Register, a networking program for women over the age of 18 who are seeking mentorship and opportunities to get more involved in their communities.

Outside of the SCWO's work, the Women's Entrepreneur Club (WE Club) helps develop networking and mentoring ecosystems among Singapore's female entrepreneur community.

So while it's clear that there are plenty of resources for women in Singapore, the disparities between male and female entrepreneurs seem to indicate that there are other factors at play.

Though resources abound, self-perception may be a stumbling block

A key finding from the Index is that, worldwide, favourable entrepreneurial conditions and high incomes aren't always necessary conditions for female entrepreneurship, though women do tend to start businesses due to perceived opportunity rather than out of necessity.

However, one of the issues affecting Singapore's prospective female entrepreneurs appears to be a lack of confidence: globally, the Index finds that 43 per cent of women see potential in entrepreneurship, but that figure drops to just 17 per cent in Singapore. Further underscoring this, only 21 per cent of women in Singapore see themselves as having the required skills and knowledge to become entrepreneurs - much lower than both the regional and global averages.

The perceived lack of skills in Singapore extends to financial knowledge, where the Index indicates that aspiring women entrepreneurs may not know where to start when securing working capital, and may lack the confidence needed to navigate the use of financial resources like credit and insurance.

To unlock the potential that women entrepreneurs can bring to the table, we need to build both greater awareness and education around the opportunities and resources that are out there - which may help to foster a change to a more positive, proactive mindset.

The solution: an inclusive culture that gets down to business

A key contributor to that awareness will include cultivating a culture where we all feel well-equipped and supported in pursuing our career goals.

Women living in resource-rich markets like Singapore may still have reservations about starting a business, assuming a leadership role or outwardly showing ambition.

Women currently only hold one-third of all business leadership roles in Singapore, which the Index warns may contribute to ongoing perceptions that women lack business acumen or the capability to succeed as entrepreneurs, creating a kind of vicious cycle that holds women back.

Ultimately, keeping women in mind (and in the room) when designing policies and solutions around business and entrepreneurial initiatives can go a long way toward championing the people and innovations that are transforming the way our world works - which benefits all of us in the end.

Photo of Deborah Heng
Deborah Heng, Senior Vice President and Country Manager, Singapore, Mastercard