30. Women entrepreneurs and international trade

Jane Korinek
Elisabeth van Lieshout

In most OECD countries, international trade is an important part of the national economy and a major driver of economic growth. Exporting firms earn higher profits, pay higher wages, and grow faster than non-exporting firms (Baldwin and Yan, 2015[1]; Melitz and Redding, 2014[2]; Schank, Schnable and Wagner, 2007[3]; Singh, 2010[4]; Bernard and Jensen, 1999[5]; Bernard et al., 2007[6]). Ensuring that businesses led by women entrepreneurs are able to take advantage of the opportunities provided by international trade will support greater gender equality in addition to contributing to higher economic growth. Supporting women in trade can also help to close gender gaps that have grown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

OECD analyses of the Future of Business Survey data (Box 30.1) show that women-led businesses are substantially less likely to sell their products and services internationally than those led by men. Such findings are relevant to businesses with an online Facebook presence and they are consistent with findings from existing research (International Trade Centre, 2015[7]; 2019[8]; Bélanger Baur, 2019[9]; Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of New Zealand, 2022[10]). When asked whether they engage in international trade, only 13% of women-led firms reported they export, compared to 25% of men-led and 18% of equal-led firms. These gender differences are in part due to differences in the characteristics of women-led and men-led businesses. Women are more likely to lead firms in services sectors (93% of women-led versus 75% of men-led businesses among those surveyed), and services are generally less likely to be traded internationally (World Bank Group/WTO, 2020[11]). Women-led firms are also generally smaller and newer in OECD countries, while exporting is done more by firms that are larger and more established. For example, only 13% of women-led firms that responded to the survey have over 50 employees while 60% have fewer than five, compared to 24% and 43% respectively for men-led businesses; similarly, in emerging markets, women’s entrepreneurship is concentrated in micro firms (International Finance Corporation, 2011[12]; World Trade Organization, 2016[13]). Particularly important in emerging markets, firms that trade are less likely to be in the informal sector (World Bank Group/WTO, 2020[11]; International Finance Corporation, 2011[12]).

Some of the export gap can be attributed to underlying differences in firm types such as sector of activity and size using the Kitagawa-Oaxaca-Blinder (KOB) decomposition, a statistical method often used to analyse gender pay gaps (Jann, 2008[15]). Of the gender difference in exporting, 39% is due to the concentration of women-led firms in industries less inclined towards international trade. Another 30% can be attributed to the smaller average size of women-led firms, with little variation captured by business age and country of activity. The remaining 26% cannot be explained by firms’ features and instead seems to be associated with gender differences.

The concentration of women-led firms in sectors less engaged in exporting is not only due to their greater likelihood of working in services. Women are also less likely to lead firms in industries in which their country has a revealed comparative advantage (i.e. where the country exports more than it imports). Based on regression analysis controlling for country and sector, firms led by women are 3% less likely than those led by men to be in an industry with a comparative advantage. Similarly, a survey of women-owned firms in emerging markets suggests that they are more likely to be in lower value-added sectors (International Trade Centre, 2015[16]). This suggests that attaining leadership positions in competitive sectors may be more difficult for women, and this may present another obstacle to them engaging in international trade.

The gender exporting gap is present in most OECD countries (Figure 30.1), with major differences across countries, and in a handful of countries it is absent or even reversed (such as Costa Rica and Türkiye). In some cases such as Canada and New Zealand, women-owned firms are also less likely to import goods and services than those owned by men (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of New Zealand, 2022[10]; Bélanger Baur, 2019[9]). The level of exports and the size of the gender gap are not highly correlated: some countries see large numbers of businesses selling abroad and a small difference between men- and women-led businesses, and vice versa. A gender exporting gap is also present in almost all industries, although it is most pronounced in the manufacturing sector where exports are most common. Moreover, there is some relationship between the size of a business and its trading behaviour: as businesses grow, their likelihood of exporting increases, but this effect is stronger for men-led businesses. Thus, the gender gap also increases with business size.

Not only do women-led businesses generally export less than men-led ones, there are also differences in their export patterns. On average, women-led businesses in the Future of Business Survey sample sell to fewer destination countries: 45% export to five or more markets, compared to 51% for men-led businesses. Two-thirds of this gap is due to the smaller average size of women-led firms, while most of the remaining difference is unexplained by firm characteristics. Fewer export destinations means less potential for greater export volume and an increased vulnerability to demand shocks in foreign markets for women-led businesses.

Furthermore, women-led firms tend to export more directly to consumers and less to other businesses. Business-to-business sales are often larger and more scalable, meaning they offer more opportunity to increase exports along the intensive margin, i.e. increasing the average size of orders. While 89% of the surveyed men-led firms engaged in exporting report selling to foreign companies, only 64% of women-led firms do so. This difference is 16% due to the industries in which these firms operate, 23% to average size differences, and 5% to the younger age of women-led businesses in the survey, but most of the remaining gap, i.e. over half of the difference, is not explained by the features of men- and women-led firms.

The lower rates of exporting among women-led businesses raises the question of what obstacles women face in engaging on international markets. Identifying such challenges may help to suggest policy solutions that support women’s ability to engage in trade. The analysis in the section uses the Future of Business Survey data and should be considered as relevant to businesses with an online Facebook presence.

A substantial part of the gap in exporting is due to women more frequently leading businesses in services sectors. Generally, services are exported less and are more costly to provide across borders (Ariu, 2012[17]). Moreover, policy barriers to services trade are higher than barriers to trade in goods such as tariffs. Trade costs in services are almost double those in goods, and a large share of these costs results from policy barriers (World Trade Organization, 2016[13]; 2019[18]). Removing services trade barriers is particularly important to increasing gender equality in trade, as it will open up foreign markets for women-led businesses that are more commonly found in services sectors. Evidence also suggests that women-owned and women-led firms find barriers to trade more costly to overcome than men-led firms (Davies and Mazhikeyev, 2020[19]).

Another component of the gender export gap is the smaller average size of women-led businesses. Larger businesses engage in exporting more in part because there are a number of fixed costs involved, such as gathering information on foreign markets and customs procedures.

Obstacles that women face when it comes to growing their business include less available time due to care obligations and lower access to financing (International Trade Centre, 2015[7]; 2019[8]; Korinek, Moïsé and Tange, 2021[20]) (Chapter 29). Among the businesses surveyed, 11% of women-led firms currently had a bank loan compared to 18% of men-led firms. Including other types of financing such as family and friends and equity investors, 27% of women-led firms and 35% of men-led firms surveyed had access to outside financing. Research has found that women-owned firms face 50% more rejections in applications for traditional trade finance than men-owned businesses, and it is unclear why this is so; as such, women are more likely to seek out alternative finance than male-led businesses (DiCaprio, Kim and Beck, 2017[21]). Supporting easier access to finance for women-led businesses will play a role in both their growth and ability to export. Other surveys suggest that women-led firms find alternative methods of financing to commercial banks such as through family and friends, and using credit card debt (International Finance Corporation, 2022[22]), or applying for European Union (EU) funding (International Trade Centre, 2019[8]), more frequently than men. Lack of collateral, inadequate financial infrastructure and other barriers involving gender-based social and cultural barriers restrict the access of women-owned SMEs to more formal sources of financing (International Finance Corporation, 2022[22]; 2011[12]; International Trade Centre, 2015[7]).

As part of the Future of Business survey, firms were asked what challenges they face in selling abroad. As show in Figure 30.2, for the most part, the obstacles to trade identified by men- and women-led firms were similar. This finding contrasts with a survey of women exporters in Canada, where women-led firms are more affected by logistics, border procedures and administrative barriers to exporting as compared with men-led firms (Sekkel, 2020[23]). Women in the EU, however, do not say they experience difficulties in obtaining up-to-date trade-related information (International Trade Centre, 2019[8]). Firms that responded to the Future of Business Survey indicated difficulties in finding local business partners (the most common challenge), understanding foreign markets and navigating domestic customs and foreign regulations. Women-led businesses in turn are more concerned with the quality of internet access, in line with the finding below that they are more likely to sell goods online.

Firms that already export listed different obstacles than those not yet selling abroad. Both men- and women-led firms that do not yet export are more likely to identify export finance as a barrier than firms already selling abroad. Firms that already trade, conversely, are more likely to point to customs regulations as a barrier. Women-led firms in particular are more likely to identify the need to find business partners as a challenge when they are already engaged in exporting. This finding mirrors the challenge women face in accessing professional networks: women’s professional networks are generally shallower and smaller than those of men whereas such networks can provide information on foreign markets, and potential partners and distributors. Thus, the types of policy responses and support needed may be different for firms that are aiming to export compared with those that are looking to expand existing export operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic had wide-reaching economic impacts and was particularly challenging for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Comparing the answers given in the March 2022 survey with those given in an earlier edition of the same survey in July 2019 allows investigating the effects of the pandemic.

Men-led and women-led businesses experienced different challenges during the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2022, men-led businesses reported a significant increase in the difficulty in finding and retaining skilled employees. Conversely, more women-led businesses reported that they could not obtain the necessary financing for daily operations. This may have been exacerbated also because risk assessments in financial institutions were heightened during the pandemic.

The greater difficulty of women-led businesses in access to funding is also seen in their reduced ability to access government support (Chapter 29). Many governments implemented extensive support programmes for firms during the pandemic. The results of the 2022 survey show that, in most domains, women- and men-led businesses were equally supported. However, men-led businesses were more likely to have received non-repayable grants and subsidies than those led by women (26% versus 22% of firms). The lack of both private and public funding may hinder the ability of women-led firms to recover.

One of the consequences of the pandemic was significant strain on international supply chains; these challenges were felt more strongly by male business leaders, who were more likely than women-led firms to indicate they experience supply challenges, most prominently “delay in receiving supplies” and “an increase in shipping costs”. This may be due to the higher prevalence of men-led businesses in manufacturing and the higher rates of importing and exporting of men-led firms, all of which may have left them more vulnerable to supply chain shocks.

Another effect of the pandemic was a switch to the digital sphere, as working and shopping moved online. Women-led businesses in particular took advantage of this: while in 2019 a similar percentage of women- and men-led businesses made at least a quarter of their sales online (37% and 36% respectively), by 2022 these shares had shifted to 52% and 44% respectively. 68% of women-led and 65% of men-led businesses agreed that the COVID-19 crisis would change their use of digital technologies permanently. This increasing importance of digital business presents a significant opportunity for women entrepreneurs.

As shown above, the gender exporting gap is wide and it widens as firms grow. Since engaging in international markets generally makes firms more competitive and offers them greater opportunities to grow, targeted policies to support women in trade may be a low-hanging fruit to promote gender equality.

Many countries have implemented policies to support women entrepreneurs in their export journey, to ensure that trade opportunities are available to them, and to lessen barriers to trade and international expansion that particularly impact women. Some policies target SMEs or generally aim to improve the ease of doing business but are not gender-specific; others support women entrepreneurs but are not specific to trade. Some countries, such as Canada and Ireland, have developed an overarching strategy to support women entrepreneurs and business leaders in trade. In 2020, Enterprise Ireland launched an Action Plan for Women in Business which included as a priority doubling the number of women-led companies growing internationally, including through greater gender mainstreaming across all of Enterprise Ireland’s work, more accessible funding and financing, and greater outreach and engagement to support growth in global markets. Spain has implemented measures to increase women’s participation in trade in the areas of access to finance, trade-related training for women, data and information, and ensuring compliance with Spain’s Gender Equality Law. APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation)’s La Serena Roadmap for Women and Inclusive Growth provides a clear strategic direction for women’s economic empowerment, including through trade, for countries seeking to mainstream gender-responsive policies and drive structural reforms.

Some of the main policy areas supporting women in trade are outlined below, with illustrative examples of programmes implemented in selected OECD countries.

Increasingly, countries include gender-specific provisions in their trade agreements. This is particularly the case of newer trade agreements negotiated by Canada, Chile and the EU. The preceding analysis indicates that much of the gender gap in exporting is unexplained by firms’ characteristics, which suggests the gap may be due in part to unconscious bias and wider societal norms. Many trade agreements include provisions to reaffirm trading partners’ commitments to international standards of gender equality, such as those defined by ILO Conventions on non-discrimination and equal remuneration, or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Such provisions can go some way to ensuring basic equal rights, especially if the provisions are subject to dispute settlement within the agreement.

Trade agreements increasingly call for co-operation and implement joint activities between the trading partners that aim to reduce gender discrimination and barriers to trade and labour market participation for women. A wide-ranging co-operation agreement on trade and women’s empowerment is the Global Trade and Gender Arrangement (2020[24]), signed in 2020 by Canada, Chile and New Zealand, and then by Mexico, Colombia and Peru. This arrangement provides a forum for the adhering countries to share good practices in trade and wider domestic policies that affect women’s ability to engage in labour markets and in trade such as access to finance, parental leave and care policies, women’s representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and improving women’s business and digital skills.

One way that trade policy makers can support women is to prioritise sectors where women work in market access negotiations, in particular services, where women often work and lead businesses in OECD countries, and barriers to trade are generally higher.

In December 2021, 67 WTO member countries agreed on a Joint Initiative on Services Domestic Regulation (World Trade Organization, 2021[25]) which included, for the first time in the history of the WTO, a clause on non-discrimination between men and women. This means that the signatory countries agree not to discriminate on the basis of gender when adopting and applying measures relating to the authorisation of services suppliers.

In order to understand the impacts of trade agreements on workers, consumers and entrepreneurs, it is desirable to undertake ex ante impact assessments including measuring gender-differentiated effects, as also suggested by the ILO (2011[26]) and the World Bank and WTO (2020[11]). Women work and own businesses in different sectors than men, so they are affected differently by the opportunities and competition that result from trade agreements. They can inform negotiating strategies, for example by prioritising sectors where women export for market access in partner countries.

The preceding analysis found that 30% of the gender exporting gap can be attributed to the smaller size of women-owned and women-led firms – which are therefore more strongly impacted by non-transparent and cumbersome border processes that increase the trade costs of smaller businesses more (International Trade Centre, 2019[8]; World Bank Group/WTO, 2020[11]). The gender exporting gap is also more pronounced in manufacturing, where more trade takes place and where trade facilitation measures are most effective.

Trade facilitation reforms making border processes more efficient can reduce trade costs on average for OECD countries by more than 10%. Moreover, smaller firms benefit more from such improvements relative to large firms (López González and Sorescu, 2019[27]). Even modest improvements in trade facilitation policies such as transparency, automation, streamlining of processes at borders and border agency co-operation, have a positive impact on exports of parcels of between 6% and 14% (López González and Sorescu, 2021[28]). Increasing the ease of trade in parcels may affect women-owned businesses, which export more to individuals, even more than those owned by men, which export more to other businesses.

Many countries have implemented trade-facilitating policies that have lowered barriers to trade. The OECD benchmarks such measures in the Trade Facilitation Indicators dataset (OECD, n.d.[29]). Since women entrepreneurs have less time than men due to their greater unpaid responsibilities in the home, measures that ease importing and exporting procedures are particularly beneficial to them. Greater automation of border procedures is key to facilitating border crossings, and preferred exporter programmes also help to save time for traders. Some countries particularly target women exporters in their trade facilitation programmes. For example, Australia’s export promotion agency AusTrade has developed a programme called Women in Export that offers market information, resources and advice that caters specifically to women exporters.

Targeted export support to women entrepreneurs could help close the gender exporting gap, given that a large part of it cannot be explained by differences in firm characteristics. Trade promotion agencies support exporters and potential exporters with information, trade promotion and trade missions. APEC created a toolkit for trade promotion organisations to better understand the challenges in providing gender responsive support services, and suggest actions to support women entrepreneurs in building their export readiness and capacity to access global markets (APEC, 2018[30]).

Trade promotion services are more effective when they cater to the stage of businesses’ export readiness. Early stage exporters may be helped by programmes that provide export readiness assessments and information about export procedures. Global Affairs Canada (see quiz at https://www.international.gc.ca/gac-amc/campaign-campagne/ceta-aecg/quiz.aspx?lang=eng), AusTrade (see quiz at https://export.business.gov.au/guide-to-exporting) and the International Trade Centre (see SME Trade Academy course at https://learning.intracen.org/course/info.php?id=189 and export potential map at https://exportpotential.intracen.org/en/), for example, provide online export readiness assessments. The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service offers step-by-step guides for women business leaders exporting to the EU (available at https://www.tradecommissioner.gc.ca/guides/exporter-exportateurs/‌exporting-guide-exportation.aspx?lang=eng), while other guides focus on particular dimensions of exporting such as customs procedures or supply chain management. More seasoned exporters may be helped more by stronger business networks, and specific services catering to them in order to close the gender exporting gap that widens with firm size. Chile’s trade promotion agency ProChile’s Mujer Exporta programme provides export training, business planning (including for digital transformation), coaching, workshops and support networks aimed at women exporters.

Trade promotion agencies support exporters also by organising trade missions where entrepreneurs benefit from the networks established by trade officials in partner countries. Monitoring and ensuring gender balance in such missions can provide better opportunities to women entrepreneurs. Some countries and organisations such as Canada, Chile, Switzerland, the United States and the Organization of Women in Trade (OWIT) organise women-focused trade missions.

To tackle the barriers in access to credit and equity as well as in export financing, some countries have put in place targeted export financing mechanisms like Export Development Canada’s Women in Trade programme (Export Development Canada, n.d.[31]). Other initiatives tackle gender gaps in financial literacy (Chapter 12) and the need for financial institutions to be more gender sensitive. The International Finance Corporation’s Banking on Women Global Trade Finance Programme (BOW-GTFP) aims to close gender gaps in trade financing by creating incentives for partner banks in emerging markets to lend more to women entrepreneurs for importing and exporting, and encouraging partner banks to better serve women-owned SMEs. Specifically, the BOW-GTFP programme has issued USD 120 million in loans and loan guarantees since it started in 2019. Banks in emerging markets that loan to women-owned or women-led SMEs receive a rebate of 20 basis points (for loans financed above 100 basis points per annum) on the funds they borrow for those loans from the International Finance Corporation. BancoEstado, Chile’s state-owned bank, similarly offers training to increase women’s financial knowledge and management skills.

Strong networks can be crucial for enabling access to capital and for smaller businesses to manage common problems, reduce information asymmetry, and build social capital to engage in more distant markets (Ernst and Young, 2013[32]; Bamber and Staritz, 2016[33]). Women report that they benefit less from traditional, male-dominated professional and business networks (International Trade Centre, 2019[8]). This suggests they have less access to information, fewer contacts and less mentoring and support than men. It was seen above that women entrepreneurs that export indicate challenges in navigating customs procedures and foreign regulations, and finding foreign partners. Stronger networks can reduce these informational barriers and can provide the types of information that are not readily available such as recommendations for partners and services in-country.

Some countries facilitate networking among women exporters. The Women Entrepreneurs Network Program run by the Turkish Directorate General for Exports, for example, has created a peer-to-peer network to share information about best practices in exporting. The Pacific Alliance of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru have created a Women’s Entrepreneurship Community within the ConnectAmericas network to link women entrepreneurs in Pacific Alliance countries to buyers and suppliers.

Comprehensive gender-differentiated data related to international trade is lacking in most countries. Filling such gaps in data availability is key to ensure good policy making. Chile’s Radiografía a la participación de las mujeres en las exportaciones chilenas collects gender-disaggregated data by industry, sector, market destination and total value. Some studies have combined data sources in innovative ways, an example being the Trade and Gender Review of New Zealand, a joint study by OECD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of New Zealand (OECD, 2022[34]). Closing data gaps also implies collecting data on, and monitoring, gender balance in trade programmes and policies such as export promotion services, women entrepreneurs’ engagement in preferential exporter programmes, and women’s participation in trade policy making both on negotiating teams and as engaged stakeholders.


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