We need to address the mental health and wellbeing of Canada’s women entrepreneurs

Photo from QUOI Media website, www.quoimedia.com.

Rosalind Lockyer, QUOI Media

Canadian women are not standing on the sidelines when it comes to owning and operating their own businesses. Whether it is in retail, food services, communications, the trades, technology or other areas, the number of women entrepreneurs in Canada is growing and their contributions are having a positive impact on the economy.

Women business owners have created over 1.5 million jobs and have contributed about $150 billion to the Canadian economy, according to research.  Despite this success, a recent survey of women entrepreneurs by the non-profit PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise (PARO) finds that women entrepreneurs are facing challenges that negatively affect their mental health and wellness.

While entrepreneurship on its own can be a difficult – especially when faced with the current economic uncertainty, impacts of inflation and the aftermath of a pandemic – being a women entrepreneur adds an extra layer of complexity. To help women succeed as entrepreneurs, governments at all levels must support policies that address the specific challenges they face.

One of the biggest obstacles for women entrepreneurs, it turns out, is accessing funding for their businesses. In the PARO survey, 86 per cent of women entrepreneurs said financial factors caused them significant stress.

This is not surprising, given that studies show that half of women business owners face challenges when trying to access financing for their business and that financial applications for women-owned businesses are more likely to be rejected outright than men-owned businesses.

Compared to men, women entrepreneurs also report more difficulty finding, qualifying and applying for government support programs.

Another challenge is the struggle to balance work and family life. Due to out-dated gender norms that often situate women as the sole or primary providers of caregiving and household duties, women entrepreneurs can feel overwhelmed as they strive to care for their children and/or aging parents while simultaneously running their business.

The survey found women entrepreneurs also lack mentoring and support networks, depriving them of coaching and guidance that can play a crucial role in their success. At the PARO Roundtables following the survey, women entrepreneurs spoke of the need for an entrepreneurial buddy system so that they do not feel alone as they deal with work and family challenges.

The survey also found that women entrepreneurs who seek mental health support find that they have to pay for expensive private services themselves or face long waitlists for government-funded resources. This leaves many feeling defeated and uncared for during difficult times.

The challenges are even greater for Indigenous and visible minority women entrepreneurs, who also contend with the effects of colonialism, systemic discrimination and racism.

Compounding these issues is the lack of representation of women in decision-making positions in government and private business. When women entrepreneurs do not see themselves represented adequately in leadership roles, it can restrict their ability to envision and pursue their own entrepreneurial endeavours.

The lack of diverse role models also results in fewer opportunities for guidance and peer support, creating additional barriers for women to circumnavigate the complexities of the entrepreneurial space.

The good news is that there is a lot that governments can do to develop a robust support system for women entrepreneurs and reduce or eliminate the mental health and wellbeing challenges they face.

Governments must ensure that women entrepreneurs have equitable access to business funding opportunities. They must also support financial programs with criteria and applications tailored to women’s participation, so that women entrepreneurs can more easily access the funding they need. Governments must evaluate their current measures for qualifying applicants to ensure equal access to diverse populations.

Governments must also provide funding for organizations to create more opportunities for networking and mentoring for women entrepreneurs, particularly those that promote diversity, inclusivity and the visibility of successful women entrepreneurs of all backgrounds.

Additionally, they must address issues such as gender stereotypes and improve access to resources such as childcare to help improve work-life balance.

Governments must also increase access to essential mental health resources – especially timely access – so that women entrepreneurs can get the support they need when they need it.

Within their own ranks, governments need to create more opportunities for women in decision-making positions. Having more women in leadership roles can spur societal progress and empower women entrepreneurs to achieve their aspirations.

Women entrepreneurs create wealth and jobs, benefitting their communities and the Canadian economy. To help ensure that they succeed, we must address the mental health and wellbeing challenges that they face.

Rosalind Lockyer is founder and CEO of PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise-Ontario, PARO Canada, and board member for Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC).