Saturday marked International Women’s Day, an event founded in 1911 as part of the fight for gender equality and to celebrate female achievement. And one area in which women have made enormous strides in the last century is in business ownership and enterprise.
In the early twentieth century, female entrepreneurs were largely invisible. Today, about 860,000 women in the UK run their own companies, whether out of a desire to make money, be their own boss, or simply because they have a great business idea. But women still lag behind their male peers. Just 18 per cent of Britain’s SMEs are majority women-led, according to figures from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Things are improving, with more women setting up their own enterprises than even a few years ago. But the picture varies dramatically around the UK. So, where are women flourishing in business in Britain?
In the US, there has long been detailed analysis of the places where female entrepreneurship thrives, but information showing the number of women-led companies in the different regions of Britain is harder to come by. Most official figures calculate the number of start-ups and private sector companies by industry and region, and some detail the amount of female-headed firms overall, but breaking down statistics geographically and by gender is not so easily achieved. So, here at Boost Capital we decided to crunch the numbers ourselves to get an idea of where in the UK women are running the show.
We turned to regional labour market data compiled by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and compared the number of self-employed women in each British region in the year from October 2009 to September 2010 with the equivalent figure three years later between October 2012 and September 2013. Then, we looked at what proportion women made of the self-employed total in each area.
Here’s what we found, ranking regions from the greatest number of self-employed women to the lowest:
- London: Surprisingly, the English capital isn’t top of the ranking when it comes to the proportion of self-employed female workers, boasting just under 36 per cent. But the city does have the greatest number of women working for themselves of anywhere in Britain in real terms – 220,000, up from 190,000 three years ago.
- The South East: This prosperous corner of Britain isn’t far behind the capital in terms of enterprising spirit. More than 36 per cent of those who are self-employed here are women, a total of 219,000, more than 16 per cent more than in 2009/10.
- The South West: It may be best known for its rural lifestyle, cream teas, and beautiful beaches, but there’s something else afoot in the South West. It has the highest proportion of self-employed women of anywhere in the British Isles – almost 37 per cent – with 139,000 women being their own boss in the region, up 16,000 in the last three years.
- The East of England: This geographically flat region includes Silicon Fen, the so-called Cambridge Cluster where many tech firms have grown up in recent years. And more of these entrepreneurs – both in digital and other fields – are female. A third of the self-employed total in England’s eastern counties are women, with 134,000 women working for themselves here, an increase of almost 23 per cent since 2009.
- The North West: Merseyside has a reputation for producing strong women, demonstrated by the growing number of female residents in the North West going into business for themselves. 15,000 more women have become their own boss here since 2009, a 15 per cent increase to 114,000. More than 29 per cent of all self-employed people here are female.
- Scotland: With some very big names in Scotland’s female business firmament, including Ann Gloag, the founder of Stagecoach, and Michelle Mone of the Ultimo bra brand, Scottish women have plenty of strong enterprising role models. About 94,000 women have chosen self-employment north of the border, an almost 15 per cent increase in three years, making women more than a third of the entire self-employed population.
- Yorkshire and the Humber: Women in the Yorkshire town of Helmsley have been taking the retail industry by storm, with six out of ten shops in the high street now run by female business owners. It’s indicative of a wider trend – about 15 per cent more women have become self-employed in the last three years in the broader region, with total numbers now reaching 90,000. Just over 30 per cent of the self-employed population is female.
- The West Midlands: Manufacturing is driving the regional economy forward here, according to UK Trade and Investment, and while more women are getting in on the game in this and many other industry sectors, there’s still work to be done to encourage female entrepreneurs in Birmingham and the surrounding area. This region saw the lowest increase in female self-employment, with only an 11 per cent rise from 80,000 in 2009/10 to 89,000 in 2012/13. However, women in the Black Country and beyond still make up almost 30 per cent of the self-employed populace.
- The East Midlands: Lace-making was once the primary industry for female workers around Nottingham, but today women are running their own companies in the region in ever greater numbers and in a vast range of sectors. About 82,000 women work for themselves now in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the surrounding counties, 15.5 per cent more than did in 2009/10. Almost a third of the self-employed total is now female in the region.
- Wales: Across the Welsh border there are various initiatives and bodies in existence to help women into business, such as the Chwarae Teg, which promotes female-led firms. And such efforts do appear to be making a difference – there are almost a fifth more self-employed women in Wales now than in 2009/10, 55,000 in total. Women account for almost a third of all of Wales’ self-employed.
- The North East: Female entrepreneurs in this region embarked on a series of events to mark International Women’s Day, and it seems they have some reason to celebrate. There was a 31 per cent increase in self-employed women here between 2009/10 and 2012/13, with 38,000 now working for themselves. Overall, women account for almost 37 per cent of the self-employed workforce.
Northern Ireland’s figures haven’t been detailed here because the ONS didn’t include them in its table. We must also say that we realise that self-employment is not an absolute measure of business ownership, but in the absence of any other gender-defined data, it’s one of the few guides available and is reflective of much business and early stage entrepreneurial activity. Some estimates suggest self-employment constitutes about 90 per cent of business ownership for both men and women, so it’s a fair indicator of what’s happening in SMEs in Britain.
So, what do the figures tell us? Quite simply, more women are working for themselves in all areas of Britain over the last three years. Proportionately more women are going it alone in the South West than anywhere else, but the North East has seen the greatest growth in female self-employment in recent years. And London still wins in terms of absolute numbers of female entrepreneurs. Each region will have its own economic pressures and local influences affecting levels of female business activity. But the fact remains that more women are going it alone and that trend looks set to continue.
Admittedly, some self-employed women will only be working part-time. Others might only be working for themselves due to redundancy or the inability to find work in times of high unemployment. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and if firms can set up and survive in tougher financial times, they’re well placed to trade successfully when things start to improve. Whatever is leading them to act, more women are doing it for themselves in terms of business, and that can only be a good thing for them, the economy, and society at large.
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