Five steps to help women entrepreneurs cross the business gender divide

Women entrepreneurs tend to be stuck at the lower end of the business value chain, while their male counterparts make more profits at the high end. The ILO has developed a five step model to help women cross the business gender divide.

Charleine Mbuyi-Lusamba, Technical Lead, Women’s Entrepreneurship Development

Walk through any town or village in my home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and you’ll see a multitude of hairdressing businesses, most of them run by women. They are mainly plaiting, cutting and styling but this is not where the real money is made. Their businesses remain on a plateau, never really moving forward.

Then you find small factories producing the hair products used by these women entrepreneurs. In most cases, the factories are owned and run by men, who have found a way to tap into more lucrative segments of the chain.

You see this business gender divide in many parts of the world, where women are stuck in the lower ends of the value chain or where they are concentrated in traditionally female, low income sectors.

Take Somalia for instance, in my role as lead technical officer of the ILO’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Development (WED) team, I have spent time with Somali business women, who are working in the dairy chain. They may own one or two cows and sell the milk in the market or on the streets of the capital Mogadishu. Most do not think of moving into other more profitable businesses, partly because milk production is often handed down in the family and is seen as a woman’s traditional role.

I’ve also met entrepreneurs working in Somalia’s more profitable renewable energy sector, which is dominated by men, most of whom would not consider working in the dairy sector because it’s seen as ‘women’s work’.

Our aim in the WED team is to help women ‘add value’ to businesses they may already own in essential and female dominated sectors, and to encourage them enter more lucrative sectors, often growth-oriented and male-dominated. We have developed a five-point business upgrading model to help make this happen:

  • Identify and assess the best sectors where women can establish and grow their businesses. This includes sectors where women already have a significant presence, and those that are traditionally male-dominated, which women can be encouraged to enter.
  • Deliver tailored business support, including entrepreneurship trainings, business continuity management, and soft skills training that cater for women’s and men’s needs. By working with local business support organizations, we ensure that these services sustain and remain available even after projects have ended.
  • Help business women access markets by working with government and the private sector to promote hiring and purchasing policies that benefit and include women owned and led enterprises; and by helping women entrepreneurs succeed in bidding processes, equipping them with market information, and supporting them to meet standards and requirements.
  • Make finance easier to access by connecting women entrepreneurs with different financing options, including conventional financial institutions, as well as less conventional financing mechanisms, such as impact investors.
  • Strengthen women entrepreneurs’ voice and representation by building peer-to-peer support networks, and facilitating their participation in key associations and platforms. Through soft-skills development and strengthened networks, the aim is also to empower and encourage women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and enter and succeed in male-dominated sectors.

On 19th November, we are celebrating Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. It is a day to recognize the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of women business owners in the world. It will also be a time to highlight the issues facing them and the ways they can cross the business gender divide.

See ILO, Sectoral Assessment of Women’s Entrepreneurship Development in the Agriculture and Renewable Energy Sectors in Somalia, 2020.

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