Government Misses the Big Picture on UK Women’s Business

Much of the key data about women’s business ownership in the UK is illustrated in this new infographic published by HM Government (see below). But it misses the big story: for the first time ever more women are starting businesses than men. The number of self-employed women has increased by 19% since the 2008 economic crash, compared to just 4% for men. 54% of the new self-employed are women. That’s 200,000 more women running their own businesses.

There is little sign that government are aware of this historic shift. A couple of weeks ago the new minister for employment relations and women and equality – Jo Swinson – said in her party conference speech “if women started businesses at the same rate as men, we’d have 150,000 more businesses in the UK.”  The same phrase has been used by female Tory MPs. In fact the sound-bite was first coined at the 2004 Prowess Annual Conference, by then women’s minister, Jacqui Smith. It was accurate then. Do the current government really not know that aspiration has been exceeded?

There has been a revolution in women’s enterprise since 2008, but it’s been almost invisible. For most of the women concerned it’s a massive culture change. This new group of self-employed are different. Traditional male-based self-employed trades have actually declined during this recession, the new self-employed are much more likely to be women and from the public sector. So not only are they entering a sector that was massively male dominated (with women just 27% of the self-employed before the recession), they are also moving from the public sector to the sharpest end of the private sector.

For such a labour market transition you would expect a skills training strategy at the very least. But instead start-up support has been largely axed. Of those benefiting from the New Enterprise Allowance – the scheme to help the unemployed start businesses –  just 17% are women. That’s despite the fact women are more than half the new self-employed and 5 times as likely to start from unemployment.

Much as we love a good infographic here at Prowess 2.0 and we are really pleased to see one about UK women in business at last, we’ve got higher expectations of one published by government. We expect government data to give the full picture. We expect it to inform government policy. This adds to recent statements which suggest both that the data being used and the aspirations for women in business are woefully selective  and out of date. Let’s hope they catch up soon.

UK Women in Business Infographic

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