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Entrepreneurship is not for everyone

IDRC GrOW Research Bulletin Issue No. 2 by Bipasha Baruah July 2017

Entrepreneurship has been promoted as a cure-all to generate employment for women’s economic survival almost everywhere in the world. This trend has peaked over the past 20 years during which most countries liberalized their economies and embraced globalization. Entrepreneurship can certainly benefit some women and it is important to continue providing support to optimize women’s entrepreneurial pursuits. However, it is also important to recognize that entrepreneurship is often not a realistic employment solution for some, particularly low-income, women. Research conducted around the world demonstrates that even well-intentioned interventions by governments, NGOs, private sector organizations and social enterprises fail to level the playing field for all women to become successful entrepreneurs. This is precisely why poorer women worldwide generally tend to be more interested in stable wage employment rather than entrepreneurship.

Given these limitations, it is important to refocus attention in the future to the creation of jobs with decent wages and good social benefits. Focusing on creating decent wage employment and expanding and improving social protection will also benefit women who choose to pursue entrepreneurship since there is mounting evidence that self-employed women continue to face the challenge of creating stable sources of income. The tenuousness of entrepreneurship and the absence or unevenness of social safety nets in different countries highlight the need for governments to provide adequate social security to protect against vagaries in the market, natural GrOW Research Bulletin Issue No. 2 disasters, illness, maternity, old age, job losses and other risks to people’s well-being. I would like to take it a step further and emphasize that providing social protection within a human-rights framework and delinking social security from employment status is a strategy worth pursuing worldwide. It is difficult to be innovative in creating new sources of employment when people lack basic social security. The availability of universal social protection would enable us to be more resourceful and effective at creating and optimizing employment opportunities for everyone.

Within a broader conversation about job creation and social protection, it is important to create and optimize opportunities for women in lucrative non-traditional fields such as the energy sector, transportation services, and skilled construction that have, for the most part, remained inaccessible for women almost everywhere in the world. Over the past decade, I have studied women’s employment in a series of such non-traditional occupations and some common findings emerge from this research. I found that education, training, certification and employment placement can play an important role in providing skilled women with quality employment opportunities in non-traditional occupations but wider policy intervention is also needed at municipal, state and national levels to ensure that such programs have replicable, sustainable, and gender-equitable results.

Whether women will be able to incrementally build on the gains they have made in these occupations will depend on several factors, including continued support from governments, civil society organizations and the private sector; scaling up access to training and certification to include larger numbers of women; and wider public policy interventions to ensure that women are not easily rendered jobless by changes in the national and global economy. It is also important to bear in mind that legal interventions and policy reforms do little or nothing to challenge the underlying social norms, hierarchies, customs and taboos that inhibit women’s participation in non-traditional occupations. Education and consciousness-raising initiatives that raise awareness among women as well as men about women’s equal entitlements to quality employment are just as crucial as policy reforms and state and civil society actions that protect women’s interests and facilitate their agency. Women can benefit optimally from paid employment only within the context of wider socially progressive policies and more transformative shifts in societal attitudes about gender roles. This is as true for developing countries and emerging economies as it is for industrialized nations.

Focusing on increasing women’s participation in male-dominated occupations such as construction and transportation does not mean that we should not be concerned about how undervalued and underpaid women are in stereotypically feminized occupations such as domestic work, early childhood education and retail services in which they are the majority. Improving the status, wages and working conditions for people working in female-dominated sectors is as important as increasing women’s participation in well-compensated male-dominated occupations. The two strategies should be complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Bipasha Baruah is the Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues at Western University, and a tenured full professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research.