Female Entrepreneurs Held Back By Unpaid Work

Women Unpaid

The untapped economic potential of female entrepreneurship represents a potential £1bn annual boost to the UK economy (Royal Bank of Scotland, 2017) and 150,000 additional new starts a year (Prowess Women in Business, 2018). It is widely reported women entrepreneurs often face more barriers to enterprise than their male counterparts. Data on gender difference within entrepreneurship consistently reveals a bias; female-led businesses receive only 9% of investment (The Entrepreneurs Forum, 2017), win only 5% of corporate and public sector contracts (Prowess Women in Business, 2018) and start businesses with an average one-third of the level of finance of their male counterparts, regardless of the sector (Prowess Women in Business, 2018).

Individual regions within the UK tell different stories about the barriers to entrepreneurship women face. Some barriers are common experiences, which many of us will recognise, and a large number are established by cultural norms and economic status; women are twice as likely to live in poverty as men (Prowess Women in Business, 2018). If the UK competed with countries leading the way for female entrepreneurship, such as Canada which reports the most active women entrepreneurs in the world (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2015/16 ), in a decade the UK would gain a £10bn boost to the economy (Royal Bank of Scotland, 2017).

One nationwide challenge to female entrepreneurship, but which differs for each region, are the demands of unpaid work. Unpaid household services work is defined as informal services provided without economic compensation, including childcare, adult care, meal production, housework and transport (Office For National Statistics, 2018). Not included in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it is valued at £1.24 trillion to the UK annually (Office For National Statistics, 2018).

Women make a disproportionate contribution to this type of work, carrying out on average 60% more of it than men (Office for National Statistics, 2018). The additional socio-economic demand can be a barrier to women fulfilling their economic potential within employment and enterprise (Clare Lyonette, 2014).

Attitudes to the role of women within unpaid roles in our society create additional barriers for some women starting a business. Those with dependent children report feeling they are not treated on an equal footing with men founders (The Telegraph, 2018). In addition, young female entrepreneurs report being told potential future family commitments are a justified reason for declining investment (PNE Group, 2018), prescribing a future for these entrepreneurs irrelevant of their ambition, acumen or business plan. Yet, rather than creating a barrier, a trend for greater community contribution by women is one which could be harnessed to generate social value through entrepreneurship. Women are 1.17 times more likely to start social ventures than men and 1.23 times more likely to pursue environmental ventures (Forbes, 2016); data also shows an increase in the share of household income controlled by women increases spending which benefits children (United Nations, 2018).

Studies demonstrate regional differences in unpaid work trends; insight which can be used to identify regions in which support overcoming the various barriers to entrepreneurship associated with unpaid work could be most valued and impactful.

Wales and the East of England report the highest levels of unpaid work in the UK, with residents on average contributing 27 minutes a day more than in London, which reports the lowest levels, totalling an additional 164 hours or 4.4 working weeks annually (Office For National Statistics, 2018). Using UK trends as a guide in these regions, women are absorbing on average 98 hours more of this additional work and therefore face a greater burden than in those London; or in Yorkshire, the Humber and the North East, in which unpaid work is also found to be comparatively low. Other UK regions experiencing high-levels of additional unpaid work include Northern Ireland, Scotland and the East Midlands, which deliver on average 23 minutes more unpaid work per day per person than in London.

Gender bias within unpaid work is particularly stark when it includes caring for family, friends and members of the community. Within household work there is a reported 1:1.6 division of responsibilities, with women completing on average 13 hours a week and men completing 8 hours. Within caring, including childcare, elderly care and care of vulnerable adults, the division is 1:2.3, with women spending on average 23 hours a week and men spending 10 hours (National Centre for Social Research, 2013).

Childcare delegation presents a specific barrier to female entrepreneurs. In relationships in which men played a significant role in parenting responsibilities 47% of mothers progressed their careers after having a child (HR Magazine, 2016). However, when men played a small or moderate role in childcare only 26% of mothers progressed their careers. This barrier is in addition to the economic ‘penalty’ women experience when they have a child, on average earning 7-12% less than men in comparable roles in the five years after childbirth (Monica Costa Dias, 2016), whilst men go on to earn on average 22% more than their non-father peers (Stirling, 2016).

Care for relatives, friends or members of the community, most often elderly, is another source of unpaid work which women are increasingly absorbing, and it is important to understand and address this as our ageing population grows. At least in the short-term, care will become an increasing demand on our society (University College London, 2018), particularly in areas of economic disadvantage (Office for National Statistics, 2018). The 2001 census revealed that, of the 5.2 million people who identify as unpaid carers, 1.6 million individuals provide over 20 hours of care weekly, and that those within these groups are significantly more likely to be a female (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, 2013). On average, for every 60 minutes of care support provided by men, women contributed 80 minutes; when care was being provided outside the household, this increased to 132 minutes (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, 2013).

The type and volume of unpaid care varies by region. Higher levels of unpaid care take place in former industrial areas (Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York, 2013), with Wales reporting the highest levels of unpaid care work in the UK. 40% of all authorities, most often based in London and the South East, report more care taking place outside of the caregivers household, demonstrating the need for a different kind of approach to support in these regions. The rate of unpaid care work also varied by ethnic group. In particular, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations were most likely to provide high levels of unpaid care, and therefore women within these communities may benefit from tailored support, and a higher volume of it, to pursue enterprise.

The understanding of the complex and often very personal experiences of barriers to entrepreneurship among aspiring and skilled women is a work in progress in the UK. There are a number of high profile support initiatives that help to address the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs. Funding groups such as the Global Fund for Women and Addidi Angels help promote access to finance, whilst confidence and awareness building programmes such AccelerateHER and Prowess are helping shape a new generation of female entrepreneurs who will break down many barriers. However, we still have a long way to go to understand the everyday experiences that helped create those barriers in the first place, including the significant bias in division of unpaid work across our communities. Only when we achieve a better understanding of the support required to overcome this bias will we have a real shot at unlocking the untapped, disruptive impact of our female entrepreneurs.



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Forbes. (2016, February 3). Women Entrepreneurs Fuel Social Change and Economic Growth.

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Monica Costa Dias, R. J. (2016, August 2016). The gender pay gap in the UK: children and experience in work.

National Centre for Social Research. (2013). British Social Attitudes 30: Gender Roles. London: National Centre for Social Research.

Office For National Statistics. (2018, December 4). Regional differences in unpaid household service work, leisure and unpaid childcare: 2015. London: Office For National Statistics.

Office for National Statistics. (2018, December 4). Women shoulder the responsibility of ‘unpaid work’.

PNE Group. (2018, November 16). Raising Investment, Is It Harder for Female Entrepreneurs?

Prowess Women in Business. (2018, 12 4). Facts About Women in Business.

Royal Bank of Scotland. (2017, December 04). Female entrepreneurs contribute £3.51billion to the UK economy.

Stirling, G. C. (2016). Pay and parenthood: An analysis of wage inequality. London: Touch Stone Extra.

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The Telegraph. (2018, March 8). Two thirds of British female business owners say they are still not taken seriously by investors, Telegraph poll reveals.

United Nations. (2018, December 4). Facts and Figures: Economic Empowerment.

Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. (2013). Unpaid caring within and outside the carer’s home in England and Wales. Population, Space.

University College London. (2018, March 24). Ageing population with care needs set to grow by 25% within a decade.

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