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Kari Norman on Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Canada

In an insightful discussion with CanadianSME Small Business Magazine, Kari Norman, an Economist at Desjardins Group, sheds light on the gender disparities in Canadian entrepreneurship. Drawing from Desjardins’ report for International Women’s Day, Kari highlights that the majority of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada are still predominantly male-owned, with women entrepreneurs facing significant hurdles, particularly in securing financing. Despite Canada’s better-than-average rates of early-stage female entrepreneurship, especially in Quebec, there remains a vast untapped potential among women, especially within minority groups. Kari emphasizes the crucial role of financial institutions and policymakers in fostering a more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. By implementing measures such as diversity-focused executive training and gender-sensitive policy-making, alongside addressing the specific challenges faced by Indigenous, racialized, and disabled women entrepreneurs, Canada can make strides towards closing the gender pay gap and bolstering women’s participation in the workforce. Kari’s recommendations for increasing women’s presence in STEM fields and ensuring their fair share of jobs in the digital and green transitions are particularly pertinent for shaping a more equitable future in entrepreneurship and beyond.

Kari Norman is an Economist with Desjardins Group, based in Toronto. Since joining the team a year ago, she has been actively contributing to thought leadership and in-depth analyses of the Canadian economy, housing market and public policy. Prior to joining Desjardins, Kari has worked with the Canadian Association of Business Economics, Clayton Research Associates, the C.D. Howe Institute and Royal Bank Economics.

Based on Desjardins’ recent report for International Women’s Day, you’ve highlighted  that entrepreneurship in Canada remains predominantly male. Can you share some key statistics that illustrate this imbalance, and what factors do you believe contribute to the slower progress in encouraging women to pursue entrepreneurship compared to Canada’s international peers?

Key Stats

  • The share of majority male-owned small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada was 69% in 2020, up from 66% in 2011.
  • Studies have found that business financing is a larger hurdle for women than for men. According to HEC, “68% of projects presented by men obtained financing, compared to 32% for those same projects presented in the same manner by women.”
  • Other studies have found that it’s not so much obtaining financing that’s the issue, but rather financing amounts. According to the Canadian government’s recently established Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), the average amount of financing authorized for men-owned businesses is 150% higher.

What factors contribute to slower progress in encouraging women to pursue entrepreneurship compared to Canada’s international peers?

  • A recent OECD report shows that Canada has better-than-average early-stage entrepreneurship rates for women. In Quebec, more startups (businesses younger than one year) were owned by women than by men in 2021 (65% vs. 35%). In all, recent trends in women entrepreneurship point to advances, but also to a large untapped potential or “missing entrepreneurs.”
  • Policymakers should pay particular attention to fostering entrepreneurship among minority groups. Research by WEKH suggests that systemic challenges for women entrepreneurs are particularly acute for Indigenous women, racialized women and women with disabilities. But on a more positive note, women make up a higher proportion of SME entrepreneurs in South Asian, Black and Chinese communities than in the general population.

What steps can organizations, financial institutions, and policymakers take to address and remove the biases in business financing?

For the financial sector:

  • Companies could encourage and help business and private equity clients by building gender-diverse executive teams and boards.
  • For example,  Desjardins  offers a training path to executive leadership to all its women business clients, and  Desjardins Capital  trains cohorts of women to sit on the boards of SME clients.  Goldman Sachs  requires companies planning an initial public offering (IPO) to have at least two diverse board members, one of which must be a woman.

For policymakers:

  • Strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including by documenting barriers to women entrepreneurship with a sensitivity to intersectionality. As noted by the WEKH, Indigenous women face barriers related to geographic isolation and systemic racism, while access to financing and borrowing costs remain especially difficult for Black women entrepreneurs.

How do you believe increasing the number of women entrepreneurs can contribute to narrowing the gender pay gap in Canada?

  • The lack of women entrepreneurs is a significant component behind Canada’s gender pay gap. Gender gaps are estimated to cause an average income loss of 15% in the OECD, of which 40% is attributable to entrepreneurship gaps.
  • Increasing the number of women entrepreneurs would help close this gap and would also increase women in the workforce.
Kari Norman on Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Canada
Image Courtesy: Canva

Considering the challenges women face in entrepreneurship and the STEM fields, what specific measures or programs would you recommend strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem for women in Canada? 

  • Some 16% of female university students graduate in STEM fields vs. 41% of male university students in Canada. According to the OECD, women “may be less well-placed to seize the opportunities associated with the green and digital transitions as they tend to specialize less in scientific knowledge than men.”
  • It’s concerning that just two years after graduation, there’s a perceptible gender gap in median employment income in STEM occupations, especially for master’s graduates.
  • Policymakers should monitor progress in terms of women’s presence in STEM fields, including occupations linked to the digital and green transitions.
Kari Norman on Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Canada
Image Courtesy: Canva

Looking ahead, what are your key policy recommendations for fostering a more inclusive entrepreneurial environment in Canada? How can we better support women’s participation in the labour force, particularly in overcoming the ‘mommy tax’ and increasing representation in STEM fields?

  • Eliminate bias at all levels to remove barriers.  Specific to the entrepreneurial environment in Canada, policymakers can apply a gender lens to all policies, provide funding for women entrepreneurs through programs like BDC’s woman entrepreneur. Further, they can strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including by documenting barriers to women entrepreneurship with a sensitivity to intersectionality.
  • Offer flexibility.  Organizations should think of workplace flexibility—both temporal and locational—as a key vector to narrowing the gender gap.
  • Provide eldercare and childcare programs that are efficient and affordable.  A more equitable division of this labour between men and women would help. So would a lower cost of full participation in the labour market (such as working full time or taking on more senior roles), as low-cost universal childcare programs do.
  • Ensure women get their fair share of digital and green transition jobs.  Looking to the future, policymakers should ensure that gender gaps are not perpetuated but also that we’re not inadvertently creating new ones in sectors that are bound to see strong growth. Increasing women’s share of STEM jobs, notably in engineering, will be key to their inclusion in green transition industries and digital transformation occupations.


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