Although South Africa’s constitutional democracy has been advocating for gender equality for the past 24 years, the level of entrepreneurship among South African men and women is still far less equal than the country’s economic peers such as Ghana and Uganda. This is an indication that a progressive constitution alone is not enough to ensure that women join the local community of entrepreneurs in equal numbers to men.
Illustrating this, are the latest figures from the 2017/2018 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) which show that 13 out of every 100 South African men are involved in total early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to just 9 out of every 100 women.
This research shows that the inequality goes deeper than just the headline figure. A higher percentage of women who do start their own ventures do so out of necessity (34.3 percent for women vs. 18 percent for men), whereas South African men, on the other hand, are more likely to start a business in response to an opportunity (82 percent for men vs. 65.7 percent for women). As research indicates that opportunity-driven entrepreneurs are more likely to create wealth than necessity-driven entrepreneurs, this is definitely an area for improvement for our country.
The GEM study is an annual survey, and dishearteningly, a look at the GEM figures over a number of years shows no discernible trend towards closing the gap, while some of South Africa’s economic peers such as Brazil and Vietnam consistently show an equal number of men and women starting businesses.
Gender parity in entrepreneurship needs a consistent stretch of truly high economic growth, north of 6 percent, to shake lose any remaining cultural, psychological and economic chains that are keeping women back. Unlike its counterparts, South Africa’s economic growth over the past few decades has seldom breached 4 percent – hovering around 3 percent since 1994.
This might also explain the general low levels of entrepreneurship in the South African population, among both men and women, compared to its economic peers – 11 percent of the South African population is involved in entrepreneurial activity. Wealth creating businesses start in response to opportunities, which multiply when economic growth is strong.
Short of a massive economic stimulus needed to propel South Africa’s economic growth upward, is there anything that can be done on an incremental level in order to establish entrepreneurial equality between men and women in South Africa?
I believe that there are many low-key ways in which to entice more women to become entrepreneurs. One place to start, is to focus on the income-generating side-lines that many South African women are engaged in. A scan of social media shows that South African women are not short of ideas nor initiative. From activities that are traditionally seen as female-oriented such as baking and sewing, to truly innovative social clubs and online initiatives seem to provide an outlet for many women’s entrepreneurial urges. Yet too few of them develop into proper full-time careers.
Programmes focused on women and their side-hustles might find fertile ground to grow them into fully fledged businesses.
Another factor that might entice more women to start businesses is more accessible finance. There is no easy solution, however, as research shows that men are more likely to start looking for finance early when they launch their ventures. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use their own funds to start a business and thus delay seeking finance until their venture is potentially in trouble making it more difficult to secure finance.
The solution, if any, lies in education and training deep enough to effect a significant shift in mind-set. Given the poor state of the educational system, South Africa still has a way to go, but it could be argued that any incremental improvement in the education system would boost the country’s levels of entrepreneurship.
It remains to be seen if an increase in gender equality and representation among bankers and financiers may lead to improved access to finance for female entrepreneurs, but because it is a good thing in itself, gender parity in the finance industry is worth pursuing.
The celebration of female entrepreneurship in popular culture, social media and as part of cultural events remains important and probably cannot be overdone. Awareness of the possibility of success in the business world for females remains fundamental to any young woman’s decision to choose entrepreneurship.
Finally, a strengthening of the profile of women’s business associations in South Africa can become an important factor in increasing the number of female entrepreneurs. Organisations built by business women and that speak loudly and assertively for business women will send an unambiguous message that women belong in the community of entrepreneurs.