Entrepreneurship opportunities in a growing economy prove to be an important mechanism of ensuring many can find their economic footing. When it comes to the ASEAN region, this proves to be an even more vital means of distributing economic benefits and helps in promoting financial inclusion. While many of the corporate formal jobs still remain dominated by male candidates—an issue which has its own systemic reasons—women entrepreneurs help break the glass ceiling to what is expected of them and help create a level playing field.
But often entrepreneurship extends farther than individual will and vision; the socioeconomic environment often plays a large role in determining how effectively can are women become entrepreneurs. In addition to public policies that shape up the workforce to be prepared for the skills demands of tomorrow, shaping up the markets and creating the right linkages between education and ability to be self-employed ensures more women can be brought into the economic fold. In lower-level GDP countries, entrepreneurship can provide a way out of poverty for women faced with few other opportunities. It may also lead to greater personal autonomy and a route around discriminatory practices. Overall, improving entrepreneurship opportunities helps in creating financial incentives that have multiple benefits like rewarding problem solving, organizational, and leadership abilities, to fostering creativity and engendering empowerment. These individual benefits accrue to also provide a significant boost to the regional economy within ASEAN.
Today’s estimates suggest that across the ten ASEAN member countries, over 61.3 million women entrepreneurs own and operate businesses — accounting for 9.8 percent of the total ASEAN population. A key feature across the region remains that female ownership is relatively high across the region: in 2015, the proportion of firms with female participation in ownership was 69 percent in the Philippines, 59 percent in Vietnam and 43 percent in Indonesia. Although such numbers have shifted over the years, women entrepreneurship remains localized in several markets, with many failing to generate the required output. This is because today diverse factors such as women’s legal rights, access to education and financing opportunities and national family leave policies, coupled with the influence of cultural and religious norms, all influence the opportunities available to women entrepreneurs.
Key aspects of improving ASEAN’s ability to foster women entrepreneurship are around improving access to both education and skilling opportunities and to financial resources like funding and access to markets. While there has been a renewed focus on improving skill levels across the region, most such opportunities aim to improve the employability with little regard towards building the right skill sets to become effective entrepreneurs. A recent Asia Foundation study reflects on the problem by adding that this lack of knowledge and skills needed to start, manage, and grow a business proves to be a key barrier to women’s entrepreneurship across the region. This involves skills that are critical for successfully running a business (such as those relating to negotiations and bargaining, marketing, management, and production), as well as an understanding of economies of scale, accounting, and the essential requirements of financial institutions, which the report notes is often poorly developed among women entrepreneurs in comparison to their male counterparts.
The role of education
Education too plays a pivotal role. Although ASEAN member states have made significant progress across many such education-related indicators, the regional disparity in education and skill levels still remain significant. With technology playing a greater role in today’s economy, it can prove to be both a great liberator for women entrepreneurs and a barrier. Without proper skills and attitudes to make the best of a technologically evolving market, many women are left behind in the race that beckons tough competition. The problem of women dropping out of mainstream education channels still remains a major issue in the region, particularly acute in rural areas, where, in many countries, only very few girls from poor households complete secondary education. In addition, other aspects like health play a major role, an aspect where often women related issues are ignored and many future entrepreneurs are lost to the trivialities of life which could have been avoided by serious monitoring.
An EY report provides some policy options for governments to help women-owned and women-led enterprises get better access to markets (through enhanced gender mainstreaming of public procurement policies, export promotion activities, and supply chain initiatives, and efforts to improve the product quality and innovativeness of women-owned enterprises), finance sources (through greater gender-responsiveness of financing programmes and providers), business support services (through greater gender-responsiveness of business support providing organisations, and development of women-targeted enterprise centres, incubators, entrepreneurship/business management training and mentoring initiatives) as well as the integration of ICT tools in their business operations.
This approach ensures the different needs of women and men are part of budgetary decisions for the public expenditure which underpins the design of government programmes and activities. This is particularly important in shaping the provision of social protection, education and health care and the design of infrastructure. By placing a greater focus on women’s needs, gender-responsive budgeting has been shown to make a major contribution to reducing the burden of unpaid work and enhancing women’s opportunities for leadership in the workplace and in political and public life. Gender-responsive budgeting could also be used to create a more supportive environment for women entrepreneurs who are proven catalysts for change and a reliable means of increasing women’s share of the workforce. Women employ other women, who in turn, are known to spend more on their families, helping give children a healthy diet, a solid education, and reliable health care. As potential GDP gains from gender equality in work and society are enormous in our region, up to eighteen percent in parts of South Asia, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.