The retention of women in the labour force has emerged as one of the most pressing concerns of the post-pandemic recovery. At the height of the pandemic in June 2020, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland stated, “I think it would be fair, as some economists say, to describe the recession we are currently experiencing as a ‘she-cession.’” This rather awkward combination of words refers to the exit of many women from the workforce after COVID hit in March last year.

Semantics has always played an important role in the ways we understand and discuss gender. The construction of gendered phrases such as “she-cession” or “she-covery” are purposeful and political. Semantics can also influence the way gendered data is collected, interpreted and then used to embolden or challenge conventional wisdom. This is exemplified in recent data published by two different surveys that offer diverging interpretations of what motivates women’s entrepreneurship.

The Survey on Employment and Skills, conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research in partnership with the Future Skills Centre and the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, explores the experience of self-employment in Canada. When participants were asked to identify reasons for self-employment, more women than men cited being one’s own boss. This finding challenges the traditional conflation of entrepreneurship with masculinity, which may prompt investors to re-evaluate the criteria used in determining the success of new ventures.

The survey found that 11.8 per cent of employed Canadians were self-employed, including 13.2 per cent of women and 10.7 per cent of men. When asked about the reasons for being self-employed, nearly half (49 per cent) of those in this situation identified the importance of being one’s own boss. The second most-common response was the flexibility that self-employment provides to balance work and family responsibilities, with 42 per cent of participants choosing this answer.

Interestingly, the gender differences for each response challenge stereotypical views about the priorities of working women and men. Among self-employed women, 57 per cent identified being one’s own boss as a reason for self-employment compared with 42 per cent of men. And men were more likely to choose work-family balance as a reason for being self-employed than surveyed women (45 and 39 per cent respectively).

Different findings have been reported by Statistics Canada. In 2019, the Labour Force Survey also collected data on the reasons for self-employment. The survey results show that in 2018 about one-third (or 33.5 per cent) selected independence, freedom and being one’s own boss as the reason, and fewer than one in 10 (8.6 per cent) chose work-family balance.

Being one’s own boss was the most common reason for self-employment for both men and women in this study. However, 38 per cent of men selected being one’s own boss compared with 26 per cent of women. Triple the proportion of women chose work-family balance than men (15 and five per cent respectively). Statistics Canada states this likely reflects women’s preference for work arrangements that account for family responsibility and child-care obligations in keeping with traditional gender roles.

The contrasting results of the Labour Force Survey and the Survey on Employment and Skills can be attributed to a difference in the phrasing of the survey questions. The Labour Force Survey allowed participants to select only one response regarding their reason for self-employment, which prompted participants to choose the “main reason.” The Survey on Employment and Skills, on the other hand, allowed participants to choose as many responses as applicable. Both approaches are valid, but by allowing for more than one answer the Survey on Employment and Skills produces a more holistic picture of why individuals choose self-employment.

Arguably, a more nuanced understanding of what motivates self-employed women is achieved when respondents can pick more than one reason. When asked to choose as many reasons for self-employment as applicable, women are much more likely to select being one’s own boss than when asked to choose only one reason. Being one’s own boss may lead women to achieve independence at work and can provide an escape from a traditional workforce that is often populated with masculine structures and stalled success for women workers. The proverbial glass ceiling, including persistent wage gaps and fewer opportunities for promotion, is mitigated when women choose to be their own boss.

The Labour Force Survey also suggests that men view achieving work-family balance as a less important reason for self-employment than women. But in the Survey on Employment and Skills, which allows more than one reason to be offered, more men (by six percentage points) selected work-family balance than women. This is not to say that women and men equally share the brunt of domestic labour within the family, as women statistically spend more hours performing care work at home. Instead, these findings challenge traditional gender roles and suggest that men may be adapting more egalitarian attitudes regarding family and career. It suggests men seek more flexible work arrangements outside of a rigid workforce that often lacks family-friendly policies, such as mandated parental leave programs.

Data published by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH) in 2020 indicates Canadian self-employed women are less likely than men to receive financing from venture capitalists and angel funders. This disparity may be the result of the outdated yet consistently reinforced notion that the ideal entrepreneur is a man. Women-led ventures are viewed as mere passion projects that fit neatly around familial responsibilities.

The masculine connotation of entrepreneurship also influences the way investors understand innovation, a term commonly attributed to advancement in the male-dominated tech industry. According to WEKH, women entrepreneurs are more likely to exist within the service and retail sectors, and innovations brought forth in these industries are undervalued by investors. These implicit biases favour funding male counterparts and delegitimize the claim women have to the title of entrepreneur.

The Survey on Employment and Skills has produced a necessary counter-narrative, one that should prompt venture capitalists to rethink the ways they assess and attach value to women’s entrepreneurship. When deciding which goals are important, both women and men will benefit from having the opportunity to select all that apply.

The Survey on Employment and Skills is conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, in partnership with the Future Skills Centre and the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. The second wave of the study consists of a survey of 5,351 Canadians aged 18 and over, conducted between Nov. 24 and Dec. 22, 2020, in all provinces and territories. It was conducted both online (in the provinces) and by telephone (in the territories).

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Aherthy Jeyasundaram
Aherthy Jeyasundaram was a research intern at the Environics Institute for Survey Research. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the Schulich School of Business at York University.

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