Lack of role models. Unequal access to financing. Stereotypes about women in business. Thanksgiving challenge. Long wait times for health services.

These were always obstacles for women who run their own businesses, long before COVID-19, especially women with small businesses and the self-employed. But the pandemic exacerbated them.

A recent survey of 147 women entrepreneurs in Ontario by the non-profit PARO Center for Women’s Enterprise shows that the pandemic added to the burden on women entrepreneurs, slowing their business growth and taking a toll on their mental health.

Besides coping with pandemic-related restrictions, staffing shortages, supply chain issues and inflationary pressures familiar to most businesses, women entrepreneurs have had additional obstacles. These include gender biases when it comes to obtaining financial support for their businesses, having fewer mentors and networking opportunities than male entrepreneurs, a shortage of affordable childcare and eldercare options, which often falls on women’s shoulders, and a lack of access to mental health services.

The challenges for women entrepreneurs in rural and remote areas are even greater due to isolation, lack of proper infrastructure, unreliable internet, and lack of access to all health care services.

Finding solutions to these problems is not just important for women entrepreneurs; it is essential for the country’s economic growth.

Studies show women-owned businesses contribute over $150 billion to Canada’s economy and employ over 1.5 million people. Creating a climate in which women entrepreneurs can more fully participate in the economy and thrive benefits everyone.

To foster this environment, governments at every level must eliminate systemic gender biases embedded in their policies and practices, especially around financial support for small businesses. The PARO survey revealed that the pandemic made it difficult for almost 30 per cent of female entrepreneur respondents to meet their financial obligations. About five per cent said they lost their business altogether.

While the federal government provided financial support to businesses during the first two years of the pandemic, many women entrepreneurs were not eligible for the supports or were reluctant to sign up for loan programs that would result in more debt.

The federal government has also developed support programs specifically for women in business — a great first step. However, many women entrepreneurs are excluded from these programs because they do not include micro businesses (those with fewer than 20 employees) or solo-preneurs (self-employed workers), which are the main business models for women entrepreneurs.

The federal government must design support programs that specifically target micro-businesses and solo-preneurs, enabling women entrepreneurs to obtain financing more easily.

Governments must also champion women-centred organizations that mentor women entrepreneurs, provide networking opportunities for them — and, most importantly, financial support.

Women entrepreneurs often face systemic barriers when they apply for loans or grants through traditional lending institutions, which sometimes still view women-owned businesses as a ‘hobby’ or a ‘side hustle,’ and either reject a woman’s application or attach overly stringent terms to the financing.

Government policy changes must also address the specific barriers that Indigenous women entrepreneurs face.

Indigenous people in Canada start businesses at a rate that is nine times higher than non-Indigenous Canadians, with women driving much of the growth. However, Indigenous women face significant obstacles, including racism, poverty, violence, and a lack of infrastructure, adequate health care and educational opportunities.

Policies and programs to address these issues are essential, as are better access to grants and non-repayable loans, mentoring, training and networking opportunities designed for Indigenous women.

High costs and wait lists for childcare also continue to be a major roadblock for women entrepreneurs, despite the introduction of $10-a-day childcare policies. Governments must encourage more childcare centers to register under these programs, allowing for more childcare spaces at affordable rates.

Policies and programs to help with eldercare responsibilities must also be developed.

Women entrepreneurs are resilient and determined, but they need a more inclusive environment to reach their full potential. Governments need to act now to eliminate obstacles impeding women business owners. Our economy will reap the rewards.

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