The UK may be the start-up capital of Europe, but not when it comes to women. Despite a sharp increase in female self-employment in the decade prior to the pandemic, the number of women starting and scaling businesses remains much lower than that of men, and women in similar economies. What’s holding us back? The women in business statistics picture varies depending on the stage of intention or business, but the mix is the same: access to funding and networks, primary care responsibilities, sectors and skills.
Women in business and self-employment, female entrepreneurship and enterprise facts and statistics are listed here on the Prowess website. This is a useful resource for journalists, researchers and students.
If you can’t find the information you’re looking for on this page, use the internal ‘search’ box (top right) – the Prowess site is full of information-based articles. Many of the source reports for the facts here can be found in the publications section.
Latest UK Women in Business Statistics
There are different ways of defining women in business. Below we list the 4 main ways women involved in entrepreneurial activity are defined by the main datasets. There is some overlap between each of the groups.
Government statistics define self-employment by asking respondents to the quarterly Labour Force Survey ‘are you employed or self-employed?’ So it is self-defined. Other definitions include people working on their own account and being responsible for reporting their earnings individually to the tax office through self-assessment.
- Around 10% of women are self-employed compared with 16% of men, although the share of all self-employed workers who are women has increased over the past decade. Women comprised 37% of all self-employed workers at the end of 2022, up from 27% in 2007. (ONS March 2023)
- Over the pandemic, the number of female employees increased while self-employment fell. Between early 2020 and late 2022, 110,000 more women were working as employees, while the number of self-employed women fell by 119,000 over the same period. (ONS March 2023)
- Just over half of self-employed women are professional freelancers and women are well represented in freelancing, comprising 42% of the group. (IPSE 2020)
Female entrepreneurs are variously defined as those owning or running a new business, those who’ve registered a new company and those who are seeking growth capital.
- In 2022, women in the UK established over 150,000 new companies – more than twice as many as in 2018. (Rose Review Progress report 2023)
- One-fifth (20.5%) of all new company incorporations in 2022 were all-female led, up from 16% in 2018. (Rose Review Progress report 2023)
- One in ten working women in the UK is involved in start-up entrepreneurial activity. This is defined by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor as those involved in ‘total early-stage entrepreneurial activity’ (TEA), that is owning or running any business that is less than three-and-a-half years old. In the UK the TEA rate (the proportion of working-aged people involved in TEA) for men is 15.1% and 10.7% for women.
- Only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs is female: a gender gap equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
Female-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs)
The UK government’s definition of an SME is any company with less than 500 employees. It includes companies with no employees.
- In 2021, 19% of small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) employers were led by women (meaning that they were either led by one woman or by a management team that is majority female). This is similar to figures since 2015. This was a three percentage point increase on the 2020 figure of 16%. (BEIS 2022)
- The proportion of SMEs with no employees that were owned or led by women was higher, at 20% in 2021, around the same as in 2020. (BEIS 2022)
- Examining only SMEs with employees, women-led businesses were most likely to be in education (44%), health (37%), arts and entertainment (31%), other services (30%) and accommodation and food (29%) sectors. ‘Other includes personal services such as hairdressing and beauty. (BEIS 2022)
- UK Women’s businesses have a higher churn rate (ie. more start-ups and closures). But women are less likely to attribute closure to ‘business failure’ and more likely to cite ‘personal reasons’ – which peak at age 25-34 for women. (Women in Enterprise: A Different Perspective, RBS Group 2013)
Women on Boards
- 39.6% of FTSE 100 directorships and 38.9% of FTSE 250 directorships are held by women. (Cranfield University 2022).
- There has been a massive increase in the number of female directors in top companies since a government-backed target of 25% female representation was set in 2015.
Global Context for Women’s Enterprise
- In 2016, an estimated 163 million women were starting or running new businesses in 74 economies around the world. In addition, an estimated 111 million were running established businesses. (Women’s Entrepreneurship 2016-2017, GEM 2017)
- At every level of entrepreneurship, women are at least 20% more likely to cite necessity rather than opportunity as their motivation. But most are still opportunity driven, particularly in innovation-driven ventures, where women are over three and a half times more likely to cite opportunity motives than necessity motives.(Women’s Entrepreneurship 2016-2017, GEM 2017)
- An estimated 48 million female entrepreneurs and 64 million female established business owners currently employ one or more people in their businesses; seven million female entrepreneurs and five million established business owners are expected to grow their ventures by at least six employees in five years. (Global Report on Women and Entrepreneurship, GEM 2012)
- In every single economy included in the study, women have lower capabilities perceptions than men. In every region, women have, on average, a greater level of fear of failure than men. (Global Report on Women and Entrepreneurship, GEM 2012)
- Around 30% of all US businesses are majority female-owned. The number of women-owned businesses continues to grow at twice the rate of all US firms, and they are increasing in economic clout.
- In 2004, the average level of female total entrepreneurial activity (TEA) rate across the 34 GEM countries varied from 39.1% in Peru to 1.2% in Japan. (Global Report on Women and Entrepreneurship, GEM 2004)
The Economic Case for Women’s Enterprise
- Up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as UK men. Even if the UK were to achieve the same average share of women entrepreneurs as best-in-class peer countries, this would add £200 billion of new value to the UK economy (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Women in the USA are twice as likely to be entrepreneurially active as women in the UK. The entrepreneurial rates for men are roughly the same in the UK as in the US, any significant increase in business formation will only come from encouraging more women into business. (Harding, R., ‘State of Women’s Enterprise in the UK’ Prowess, 2007)
- Women also bring a diversity dividend as non-executive directors of companies: gender-balanced boards are more successful than mono-cultural boards on every measure. (McKinsey & Co 2007).
- Placing greater value on female-dominated personal and social services, community and social services is an important part of decoupling prosperity from pollution-based growth. (‘Prosperity without Growth’, Jackson, 2009).
- Increasing numbers of women are studying science, engineering and technology (SET) degrees, but over 70% drop out of SET careers, compared with half of men. This is a huge waste of investment, talent and opportunity, especially as the key challenges of our time – renewable energy, food security, medical advances – require diversity of technical and societal engagement. (UKRC for women in SET 2011)
- The growth in women’s enterprise in the USA has been aided by Federal recognition of its importance and a sustained commitment to its development over a thirty-year period. Although there have been remarkable policy developments in the UK over the past five years, it will take sustained commitment to ensure an equivalent level of development in women’s enterprise within the UK. (Carter, S., & Shaw, E., ‘Women’s Business Ownership’, report to SBS/ DTI 2006)
- Women starting up in business will tend to provide a more immediate contribution to the economy: Around one in five women come into self-employment from unemployment compared with around one in fifteen for men. ( ‘Promoting Female Entrepreneurship’ SBS/ DTI, 2005)
- A pound invested in developing a woman’s enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male-owned enterprise. (Chief Executive of the Small Business Service, Martin Wyn Griffith, Speaking at the National Dialogue for Entrepreneurship, Washington DC, March 2005).
Gender differences in motivations for starting a business
- Flexibility around family care is the #1 reason to start a business for women with children. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Women were nearly five times more likely to mention family reasons for becoming self-employed than men. A fifth of females chose to work as self-employed to help combine ‘family commitments/wanted to work at home’ and employment in a flexible manner. Conversely, men were almost twice as likely to say that one of the reasons they became self-employed was to ‘make more money’ than women. (ONS Regional Trends, Women in Business 2009).
- On average about 30 per cent of self-employed women and 8 per cent of men work at home. (ibid ONS 2009).
Gender differences in attitudes to starting a business
- Women were 55% more likely than men to cite fear of going it alone as a primary reason for not starting a business. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Women are less likely to believe they possess entrepreneurial skills: Only 39% of women are confident in their capabilities to start a business compared to 55% of men. This is a perceived gap in ability, rather than an actual gap in skill sets. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Only 8.6% of all UK women surveyed in the Global Entrepreneur Monitor in 2017 said they plan to start a business in the next three years, compared to 14.3% of men (Global Entrepreneurship. Women’s Entrepreneurship 2016/2017 Report, report, 2017.)
- More than half of self-employed women (53%) work part-time compared to 17% of self-employed men. (ONS Labour Market Statistics, September 2014)
- Established women-owned businesses are more ambitious than their male counterparts. (GROWE Report, Women’s Enterprise Task Force 2009).
- Women start businesses under-capitalised. It’s not just lower financial capitalisation, women also have lower levels of human (management training and experience) and social (effective networks) capital. This under-capitalisation hinders women’s prospects and also their confidence in their ability to start a business. While studies often suggest female entrepreneurs are held back by risk aversion and low confidence, in fact ‘it is likely that this is not an individualised problem of self-confidence but more an informed assessment’ about how well prepared they are. (Women in Enterprise: A Different Perspective, RBS Group 2013).
Facts about female entrepreneurs and innovators
- Women are nearly three times as likely to collaborate with research institutions (universities in particular) than male businesses (11.4% compared with 3.8%) (ibid British Chambers of Commerce 2004)
- Female entrepreneurs are more likely to have a product or service unfamiliar to the market, to have fewer competitors, and they are more likely to be using technology in their products or services than their male counterparts. In addition, they are more likely than male businesses to be offering a product or service to the market that has been developed in the last year. (ibid British Chambers of Commerce 2004)
- Across the SET (science, engineering and technology) sectors, there are 10 times as many male-owned than female-owned companies (Labour Force Survey, Quarter 4 2006, Office for National Statistics).
- Another female business owner is by far the most inspirational figure for women deciding to start a business in SET industries (‘Under the Microscope’, Prowess/ UKRC 2007).
- Women-owned businesses win less than 5% of corporate and public sector contracts. (NPCWE / Prowess ‘Procurement: Fostering Equal Access for Women’s Enterprise, 2009)
- When firm characteristics (size, sector, age, funding) are controlled for, women-owned firms outperform those owned by their male counterparts. (Women in Enterprise: A Different Perspective. RBS Group 2012)
Facts about Access to finance for female entrepreneurs
- Around one-third of women say access to funding is the biggest barrier to starting a business, compared to 20% of men. A similar proportion cites funding as a barrier to scaling up an existing business. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Only 1% of all venture funding goes to businesses founded by all-female teams, inhibiting scale-up (UK VC & Female Founders, report, February 2019.)
- Women-led businesses achieve far lower levels of equity investment, with male entrepreneurs 86 per cent more likely to be venture-capital funded, and 56 per cent more likely to secure angel investment. However, when they do secure investment, women’s businesses show returns of 20 per cent more revenue with 50 per cent less money invested (Untapped Unicorns, Female Founders Forum/ Barclays 2017)
- In 2016, 91 per cent of investment by value was directed into companies without a single female founder, while just 9 per cent went to companies with at least one.
- (Untapped Unicorns, Female Founders Forum/ Barclays 2017)
- Women are around ten per cent more likely than men to see finance as their only barrier to entrepreneurship. Education and training reduce the difference. (Kwang, Jones-Evans and Thompson. 2012)
- Women start businesses with around one-third of the level of finance of their male counterparts, in every size and sector of business. (ibid Carter & Shaw 2006)
- Women use a narrower range of types of finance in their businesses. They are much less likely to use private equity or venture capital. (ibid Carter & Shaw 2006)
- Women are more likely to be offered business bank loans and also more likely to turn them down. (ibid Carter & Shaw 2006)
- Recent evidence from the UK Survey of SME Finances reported that women were charged more than men on term loans (2.9% vs. 1.9%). No other study has found such a large difference in loan terms, and this result needs further research and explanation (ibid Carter & Shaw 2006).
- Fear of debt is the single largest barrier to entrepreneurship for both men and women, although women are significantly more fearful than men. (ibid GEM, London Business School 2004)
- Women in the UK are twice as likely to live in poverty as men and they have more to risk by coming off benefits. On average, benefits and tax credits comprise one-fifth of women’s income and less than one-tenth of men’s (Fawcett Society 2005).
Facts about women-friendly business support, skills and training
- Women who have undergone some form of enterprise training are twice as likely to be engaged in entrepreneurial activity (GEM UK 2005).
- Labour Force Survey data shows that only 12 per cent of the UK’s solo self-employed (the 92% of the self-employed without employees) have received job-related training in the last three months, compared to 26 per cent of employees. (IPSE 2020).
- The choice of targeted female-focused business support is important to women. The National Council of Graduate Enterprise (NCGE) reports that 98% of women chose to participate in their Women’s Flying Start Programme because it was women-only. The number of women accessing the NCGE’s Flying Start programme increased by 800% when a women-only option was introduced. Similarly, 98% of women involved in the pioneering Enterprising Women initiative said women-specific support was either important or very important to them. (Enterprising Women Evaluation and Research Report 2007).
- 70% of women-owned businesses seek advice at the start-up phase compared with 64% of all businesses (ibid SBS /DTI 2005)
- Following a sustained strategy to make its services more women-friendly, the national Business Link service increased its proportion of female clients from one-fifth to one-third, between 2003 – 2006. (GROWE Report, Women’s Enterprise Task Force 2009)
- Majority female-owned businesses are more likely to use an accountant than majority male-owned businesses and less likely to use no external advice than majority of male-owned businesses (Dr Stuart Fraser, Finance for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, 2005).
- Targeted Women’s enterprise initiatives complement and add value to mainstream business support services located nearby. The West Midlands Regional Women’s Enterprise Unit (RWEU) found that 58% of their clients in 2007 had not previously used ‘mainstream’ business support. A 2008 analysis found this figure had risen to 90% (Impact Assessment, RWEU 2008).
- 38% of women in the UK compared to 3% in Europe take advice from government business support. Women are more likely to use all forms of business support, whether public or private sector or informal in origin than men. They are more likely to access support from professional services, banks and governments than their European counterparts. (‘Challenges and Opportunities for Growth and Sustainability (COGS): A focus on women in the UK and Europe’. Delta Economics, 2011)
- People who have taken up entrepreneurship training are three times more confident about having the skills to run a business. (GEM Special Report: A Global Perspective on Entrepreneurship Education and Training, 2010).
Facts about self-employed women and childcare
- In the UK there are a total of 611,000 solo self-employed mothers, around half (302,000) of whom are working as freelancers. The number of solo self-employed mothers increased by 61 per cent between 2008 and 2020 (Women in Self Employment Report. IPSE 2020)
- Self-employed women with caring responsibilities, in England and Wales, receive less support than employed women. They return to work more quickly after having children and usually have little or no maternity cover. (Limmer 2012)
- Self-employed mothers are not entitled to Statutory Maternity Pay. Instead they can claim a Maternity Allowance (£151.20 per week or 90% of average gross weekly earnings whichever is the smaller amount) and can work up to ten Keeping in Touch (KIT) days to maintain their business. (IPSE 2020)
- Only one third of self-employed mothers take the full 39 week period of Maternity Allowance. (IPSE 2020)
- Shared Parental Leave (SPL) legislation came into force across the UK on 5 April 2015. Self-employed parents have been explicitly excluded from this right. (IPSE 2020)
- Women are twice as likely as men to mention family responsibilities as a barrier to starting a business. In addition, for female entrepreneurs with children, primary care responsibilities are the #1 barrier to further business success, with 46% of female parent entrepreneurs identifying it as a “very important” or “important” barrier versus 33% of male parents with businesses. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019)
- Maternity can be a particular challenge for women entrepreneurs and small business owners, as the legal framework and protections available for employees do not apply (although the self-employed may be able to claim Maternity Allowance). (Women’s Business Council, Enterprise Evidence Paper, BIS 2012).
- Pregnant female entrepreneurs are less likely to plan to take any time off as formal maternity leave (Rouse 2009).
- Enterprise programmes often ignore childcare issues and that childcare can act as a cause of business failure (Rouse & Kitching 2006).
- More women use self-employment as a temporary solution to combining child-care and income generation at specific points in their life, seeking to select back into employment when they feel it is appropriate (Jayawarna, Rouse and Kitching 2011).
- Women cite childcare as a barrier to enterprise, but some analysis suggests that rather than the key issue being the availability of formal childcare, it is often that
- women want to care for their children themselves. Nonetheless, in much of the research into barriers to economic activity, women cite a lack of affordable
- childcare provision as a barrier to entry. (Women Returners and Enterprise, Timewise Foundation 2009)
- For the UK as a whole, women are more likely than men to be involved with a socially orientated start-up 5.8% of women compared to 4.9% of men. (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Focus on Social Entrepreneurs, GEM 2004)
- Women are more likely than men to think that social, ethical and environmental considerations in business are important. (59% compared with 48%) (A Survey of Social Enterprise Across the UK, DTi, 2005)
- The gender gap for social entrepreneurship activity is far narrower than for mainstream enterprise activity (ibid Prowess/GEM 2006)
- 44% of women-led SMEs considered themselves to be a social enterprise, compared to 26% of all SMEs. However, only 9% of women-led SMEs (and 7% of all SMEs) conform to the BIS definition of a social enterprise (‘BIS Small Business Survey 2010: Women-led business boost’ Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2011)
Facts about Black, Asian and minority ethnic women Entrepreneurs
- Women are 37% of entrepreneurs, compared to 48% of the total workforce and 51% of the general population. Black Women are 28% of Black entrepreneurs but they are 50% of the Black working population. For Asian and Other Ethnic Minority women and White women this gap also exists but is half the size. (Alone together: Entrepreneurship and Diversity in the UK, British Business Bank 2020).
- More than a third (37%) of Black female business owners and 36% of female business owners from Asian and Other Ethnic Minority backgrounds report making no profit last year, compared to 15% of White female business owners. Female business owners of all ethnicities experience significantly lower median turnover than male entrepreneurs (£15,000 vs £45,000 per annum), and fewer say they met their financial aims. (Alone together: Entrepreneurship and Diversity in the UK, British Business Bank 2020).
- Women of mixed ethnicity are over two and a half times more entrepreneurial than white women (ibid GEM, London Business School, 2006)
- BAME female entrepreneurship is clustered in areas of multiple deprivation, suggesting that ‘employment substitution’ is taking place with low-paid work being sub-contracted and women having to act on their own account (ibid Harding 2007)
- The predominant source of start-up finance for many ethnic groups is friends and family. The figures are ‘other Asian’ 53.4%, Pakistani 93%, Black African 52.6% and Black Other 52.9%. The predominant source of finance for White people is bank overdraft (29.3%) as it is for Black Caribbean people (38.8%) (ibid GEM, London Business School 2004).
- For black people, there is almost no entrepreneurial gender gap (black female entrepreneurial activity is 97% of black male entrepreneurial activity) (ibid Harding 2007).
- Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) for white females is 3.6% and is two and a half times higher amongst women from mixed backgrounds (10.2%), for Bangladeshi women it is (10.9%), Other Asians (10.3%) and Black Caribbeans (10.5%). The most entrepreneurial female grouping is that of ‘other Black’ at (29.9%) of all women. (ibid GEM, London Business School 2004).
- Black women are most likely to feel that ethnicity has a strong impact on business (80%), compared to Chinese women (46%) and Asian women (46%). (Ethnic Minority Business Conference 2005)
- 25% of ethnic minority-owned businesses report a lack of self-confidence with finance, which is above the average level (16%). (Dr Stuart Fraser, Finance for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises, 2005)
- A survey of over 300 BAME women leaders found that over three-quarters felt the leadership style of white women is more positively perceived in the workplace and 80% felt that the communication style of white women is more positively regarded. (Different Women, Different Places, The Diversity Practice Ltd, 2007)
Facts about girls, women and enterprise education in schools and university
- 16 to 25-year-old women founded nearly 17,500 businesses in 2022, a figure that’s more than 22 times greater than in 2018. (Rose Review Progress Report 2023).
- Amongst younger age groups, 18 to 24 and 25 to 34, female entrepreneurship is still half of male entrepreneurship, but the picture amongst students is more promising with a TEA female rate of 2.6% compared to male TEA rate of 1.6% (The Enterprise Report, Enterprise Insight, 2005).
- It is amongst the 18-24 age group that individuals are most likely to think that entrepreneurship is a good career choice and that it has a high status in society (84% compared to the 75% in the next age group) ( ibid Enterprise Insight 2005).
- Entrepreneurial activity amongst people with no formal education is very high in the 18-24 year old age group (14.2%). Indeed for the 18-24 year old age group, entrepreneurial activity is twice as high in this category as it is for any other qualification level. (ibid GEM, London Business School 2004)
- Male and female students are equally likely to participate in school enterprise education, but males are 50% more likely than females to be interested in starting their own businesses as a result. In contrast, the girls are significantly more interested in setting up a charity or social enterprise. ( ‘Enterprise Insight Impact Evaluation, 2009).