Social enterprise for women's empowerment
Social enterprise is playing a growing role in support of women’s empowerment – notably, as a source of funding for women’s rights, a means of delivering training and creating employment, and as a way of empowering women socially and economically. ©

British Council

Empowering all women and girls and achieving gender equality are not only moral imperatives, they are crucial to creating inclusive, open and prosperous societies. Yet the barriers to doing so by 2030, as targeted by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5, are daunting.

The search for enhanced ways of addressing and funding this issue has inspired a new British Council report, Activist to entrepreneur: the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment.

Conducted in Brazil, India, Pakistan, the UK and the USA and launched at the European Development Days, it finds that social enterprise is being used to support women’s empowerment in a number of powerful ways. 

Currently, only 29 per cent of women’s rights organisations have income generating activities and their median income is just $20,000. For these often underfunded women’s organisations, social enterprise offers an independent source of funding that is not affected by the changing priorities of funders or policy makers. 

Moreover, many social enterprises are founded in order to advance gender equality – in India, 33 per cent of social enterprises list empowering women among their objectives – and many more social enterprises empower women and girls through their work with mixed-gender groups such as young people or illiterate adults. These social enterprises are helping to advance the causes and activities championed by women’s rights organisations. 

Social enterprises are creating proportionally more jobs for women than other sectors of the economy in all five countries, the report finds. In Pakistan, for instance, women comprise 37 per cent of the employees of social enterprises against 22 per cent of the total work force.  

Furthermore, many of the women employed by social enterprises are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and these jobs often represent a vital source of income. Forty-one per cent of social enterprises surveyed said that if they didn’t employ them, their staff would be either unemployed or working elsewhere for less money in worse conditions.

Social enterprise offers more leadership opportunities for women in all countries except Brazil, the report finds. In the UK for instance, 40 per cent of social enterprises have a woman leader as against 18 per cent of for-profit enterprises. 

That said, the social enterprise sector both challenges and reflects gender inequalities in wider society. For example, in all five countries, the larger the social enterprise the less likely it is to be led by a woman. This mirrors the gender imbalance in the private and NGO sectors. 

And while male and female social entrepreneurs report that their primary motivation in setting up a social enterprise is to address a social or environmental concern or to benefit their community, not to earn an income, women social entrepreneurs earn an average of 24 per cent less than their male counterparts. 

If traditional interventions to advance gender equality focus on women as beneficiaries, creating a dichotomy between ‘the empowerer’ and ‘the empowered’, social enterprise approaches can empower women as customers, employees or business owners with a genuine stake in the future and a high degree of influence, the report argues. 

What’s more, it finds that 75 per cent of women who start a social enterprise said it had given them an increased sense of self-worth and 64 per cent reported enhanced confidence. Such empowered women social entrepreneurs provide crucial new role models for the next generation.

The report concludes that social enterprise holds great potential as a mechanism for enabling women’s empowerment and it offers recommendations to policy makers, funders, women’s empowerment organisations and the social enterprise sector itself to help maximise its impact on gender equality.

About the report 

Activist to entrepreneur: the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment also includes five companion reports that examine the role of social enterprise in women’s empowerment in each of the five surveyed countries (Brazil, India, Pakistan, the UK and USA). These will be published in the summer of 2017. There is also an infographic presentation of key report findings. 

This research was led by Mark Richardson from Social Impact Consulting and the report was conceived and managed by Paula Woodman of the British Council. It was supported by partner organisations including ODI; NESsT; Jindal Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship; Jindal Global Business School; Indian Institute of Technology, Madras; Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI); and the Social Enterprise Alliance. 

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