There’s no question that Canadian businesses owned by women entrepreneurs can be just as successful as those controlled by men, so why aren’t more of them exploring global export opportunities?

It’s an important question as we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women in Trade Month this March. What’s holding women entrepreneurs back, and what can be done about it?

Canadian small- to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up the majority of EDC’s focus. Our research shows that while 13.5 to 16 per cent of Canadian SMEs are owned by women, only 7.5 per cent of them export their products or services. While not all SMEs are export-oriented, 8 per cent of those owned by women are interested in expanding their business outside of Canada, compared to 11.3 per cent of SMEs as a whole.

Complex obstacles for women in trade

In spite of the significant progress women in business have made in recent years, they still face gender-specific obstacles to working, trading and doing business. Some of these obstacles are complex, so understanding what they are and why they still exist is important if they are to be overcome.

The first step is to acknowledge that women entrepreneurs face unique challenges to increasing their participation in trade generally – and exporting in particular – and dispel some of the misconceptions about their approach to business.

For example, research co-funded by BMO, the Government of Canada, Carleton University and The Beacon Agency found that most policies and financial assistance programs currently equate innovation solely with technological advances, and therefore don't consider how women are innovating much more broadly.

Many of the women entrepreneurs interviewed noted that they do not feel welcome or included in the focus of mainstream networks, incubators and accelerators. They also feel there is an underrepresentation of female mentors and potential investors, which hinders their ability to raise capital or attract the attention of policymakers for funding opportunities.

Some women entrepreneurs said they experienced a range of discrimination and sexism, from comments about their appearance, level of experience, knowledge, and attire to a lack of understanding about how women's business pitches are different from men's.

Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service points out that women owners of SMEs are generally more educated than their male counterparts, which should make them more likely to export.

How is EDC supporting women in trade?

At EDC, we recognize that international trade brings risk, but it also brings rewards. Diversification for your company, increased revenue, and longer-term business sustainability are just a few examples of potential rewards.

The entire Canadian economy benefits when companies export, so it’s imperative to address what’s holding back potential exporters, especially women entrepreneurs. To do this, EDC is aiming to support an increasing number of women-owned and led businesses, providing them with solutions to help them go, grow and succeed internationally.

To begin with, EDC will be participating in the Federal Government’s broader Women’s Entrepreneur Strategy, with a focus on helping women to drive company growth in the domestic market, as well as to expand into the global marketplace.

The EDC contribution to this strategy is a $250 million initiative, which will be leveraged by EDC over the next three years, and will be provided on commercial terms for women-owned and women-led firms that are either exporting or looking to start.

At the same time, the Federal Ministry of Status of Women has asked the Global Compact Network Canada (GCNC) to deliver a 36-month project to promote gender equality by engaging the Canadian private sector as responsible accelerators. EDC has been selected to work with the private sector to identify and find solutions for not only the barriers women face in the workplace, but the structural challenges as well.

And finally, in addition to providing our existing exporting solutions, such as financing and risk mitigation, EDC will continue to promote the success of women exporters through expert advice, knowledge materials, training sessions and connections with foreign buyers.

The future looks bright

While women are underrepresented now, the tide is changing. I expect to see growth in the number of female entrepreneurs who export over the next few years and take on the world. Along with the Federal Government and our partners, I’m very proud EDC is putting programs into place to encourage women to achieve those goals.

It’s events like these that will help raise awareness to get there. I can tell you that EDC is very engaged in this challenge and I am also very excited to be part of it.