Pandemic reveals need for systemic change, says advocate for women's entrepreneurship

After two years of a global pandemic that has set female entrepreneurship back, the presence of women entrepreneurs is even more important now to bolster the economy, says the CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs.

"(The) innovation that comes with exploring different ideas, different ways of thinking, different experiences, that you can only get when there are different voices at the table, is incredibly important," said Marcela Mandeville, whose organization recently released Leveraging Economic Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs in Alberta, a paper that is the culmination of a two-year project to build capacity in the ecosystem supporting women entrepreneurs.

"And it's more than just having diversity, it is actually making sure that the voices are included in a way that's thoughtful and meaningful," she added. "Sometimes that can be uncomfortable, it may create a lot of change."

Mandeville noted that women have juggled their careers alongside caring for children and elderly family members, homeschooling, and domestic responsibilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the majority of those responsibilities have not shifted as much as they "should have and could have," even as things start to reopen. Some of that is due to an outdated model for child care.

"We have this inflexibility and this traditional structure of child care that has been a struggle for many women entrepreneurs for many years. It's not a nine-to-five job, as any entrepreneur can tell you," Mandeville explained.

"Women from diverse communities are looking into their own communities to help support the raising of their children. How is that being paid for? How is that being supported? There's a whole different model of child care."

She sees the pandemic as a catalyst to create systemic change for child care, which could positively impact how successful women entrepreneurs are going forward.

A portrait of Marcela Mandeville

Marcela Mandeville is the CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs and an experienced entrepreneur herself. (University of Alberta)

The pandemic had a disproportionate effect on women, the Women's Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub found in The State of Women's Entrepreneurship in Canada 2021.

"During the early days of the pandemic, many women entrepreneurs were unable to access government supports as priority was given to SMEs with employees and incorporated businesses," says the report. "Meanwhile, they experienced a greater loss of revenue and talent compared to their men counterparts. Many were also unable to take advantage of the digital transformation boom due to limited technical skills. These challenges were exacerbated by pandemic-related closures that disproportionately placed the burden of domestic and care work on women."

But there's more than the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting inequities standing in the way of women entrepreneurs.

"The entrepreneurship and business world was not created by or for women. So it has been a challenge for many years to break into the existing system to get access to capital, for example," Mandeville said. "When you have the challenges of gender ... and then you layer on top of that, being of a different race, being Indigenous, having a disability, being a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community ... there are layers upon layers that create extra challenges and extra barriers."

Mandeville said that when it comes to systemic change, it is crucial to look at it from a fully inclusive lens. That means considering what actions are necessary to remove barriers and bolster all women, including looking at access to capital, education, wage gaps, and more.

"And then on top of this, there are so many challenges that we still have to face around racism, homophobia, and societal issues that have been quiet for a very long time, but have always been there and are now coming to the surface with more of these discussions that we're having around equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice," she added.

Tackling such challenges requires a co-ordinated effort, which is what the Strengthening Partnerships Initiative is all about. AWE worked with 68 entrepreneurial service organizations across the province to understand what has to happen to bring about lasting change. Five key themes emerged: defining and articulating a collective return on investment; instituting gender-based bias training; forging purposeful connections; using technology to better serve and empower women; and instilling financial knowledge to empower them as well.

The goal is to change the system so that women don't have as many barriers or challenges to success. Eventually, Mandeville said, it would be great if AWE no longer needed to exist, because true parity will have been achieved.

While the pandemic has meant taking a few steps back, it has also renewed calls to close gender gaps and reaffirm women's rights. International Women's Day, which is on March 8, is another opportunity to celebrate successes in the right direction, and take the pulse on what future work needs to be done.

AWE won't be hosting its own International Women's Day event this year, but as an organization, it plans to participate in other events that are happening next week.

"Every day should be International Women's Day, but it feels like events are really starting to stretch through that full week ... which is fantastic," Mandeville said.

"We are so proud of the incredible work that all the women are doing here in our province to keep their businesses going, keep our economy going, and to keep our communities getting stronger. So we just put out as much love as we possibly can."

Listen to Marcela Mandeville's full interview on the March 3 episode of Bloom, Taproot's innovation podcast.