What Holds Women Back From Starting a Business?

March 8, 2021



Just at the beginning of this year, UNDP Belarus kicked off the Accelerator Lab. It is a part of the Global Accelerator Lab network residing in 92 locations and supporting 116 countries. Belarus has proudly become one of them to drive development changes innovatively.

 The Accelerator Lab was set up to bring together grassroots innovations based on real-time data and experimentations for advancing approaches tackling development challenges.

Identifying focus

As one of our first tasks as a team, we had to plan our first hundred days based on frontier challenges that we elaborated jointly with colleagues to bring together existing internal knowledge and expertise. We have pinpointed green economy, digitalization, and women's economic empowerment among initial frontier challenges to build upon existing programmes and offer innovative solutions. In particular, we paid attention to UNDP Belarus’ initiative with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) to increase women's economic empowerment based on behavioural insights.

 Behavioural insights lay the ground for innovative approaches in the Accelerator Lab's work, namely when it comes to identifying challenges and opportunities for the communities, followed by further development solutions. This coincidence encouraged us to dive into the topic and determine what barriers and enablers are for women to hold back or start their businesses and what solutions can be offered by the Accelerator Lab.

“A special female business model”

The first insight came from existing research and studies.

There has been a phenomenon succinctly defined by one of the BIT interviewees as “a special female business model”. This idea is augmented by the findings of Belarussian scholars (Nestsiarchyk, 2016). It looks like it is not unusual to claim that women’s strategy and style to do business is different from men’s one. The former is described as gentle, process-oriented, relational, small-scale, service-oriented, and traditional, whatever is meant by this. The latter is result-oriented, production-based, medium- and large-scale, more aggressive. In other words, it corresponds with the traditional understanding of femininity and masculinity.

For the second insight, we turned to social media discourse on women entrepreneurs.

We did social media analysis of how women entrepreneurs' programs are described --which words and visuals are used, and what key messages and narratives of those programs look like. Whether verbal or visual representation, many of them overtly emphasized the female role of being a mother, a housekeeper, and the role of the family in women’s lives. Regardless of women’s career aspirations, caregiving functions are still both seen as pivotal for women and their primary responsibilities and priorities. Not surprisingly, the available data confirm the statement: women are disproportionately involved in providing unpaid care work compared to men. In other words, women perform 76.4 per cent of the total amount of unpaid care work or spend on average 3.2 times more taking care both for children and more senior relatives (Duragova, 2020; Charmes, 2019). 


Figure 1. Average time distribution (hours and minutes) by sex—total population 10 years and above. Source: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30943?locale-attribute=en Fig. 18


Tapping into the phenomenon

The third insight was about the time in women’s lives when they are ready to start a business.

Akulova (2018) suggests that women tend to start their business after giving birth to children. One of the main reasons is that women as primary caretakers need to juggle full-time office jobs and mothering. With 40 hours working week and non-favourable timing of the pre-and after school arrangements, women have no other choices than to compromise their careers and flexible work hours that do not tend to be paid sufficiently.

 Another option could be to combine both starting a business and motherhood. Again, problems are rooted in traditional notions of gender here shared by many: men do not readily support female endeavours in business. They prefer them staying at home and being a mom as an ideal of woman and femininity in and of itself. Women explain this situation themselves: “Many families here are very traditional. They expect women to stay and raise children and they expect husbands to earn more money than wives. Many women don’t even think of starting their own business because of this” (cited in the UNDP Belarus report on behavioural insights, 2019).   When women are productive and effective, the economy grows. Accomplished and successful women contribute to happy families and invest in raising and educating children.

What does it have to do with confidence?

The last but not the least insight is about confidence, or lack thereof, to be precise.

The women that were part of the behavioural insights study mention a lack of confidence as the primary reason for holding them back from starting a business. Nonetheless, what stands behind a lack of confidence is not discovered enough to understand how it can be tackled and how to help women overcome a lack of confidence.

However, some initial ideas for the lack of confidence suggest that biased attitude in the financial institutions might be the reason of why women-entrepreneurs don't feel confident. For example, men receive 55% fewer rejections to credit requests than women in Belarus, even though women are more accurate in paying off debts, according to EBRD reports. Such an attitude on behalf of the banks discourages women from starting a business and preventing its growth.


Figure 2. Belarusian banks through the gendered prism.


What’s next?

Dealing with the insights, we pose questions for ourselves how and why discourse about “special female business” has emerged and how can it be disrupted? What consequences it can have, and what implications does it have for women’s business confidence? How can we support women entering the business and build their capacities and self-confidence to be productive and effective?

Various countries’ examples show it is a challenging journey.

However, before planning programs on women’s economic empowerment, we need to get on board our colleagues, national partners, NGOs, the private sector, and all stakeholders interested in finding innovative solutions. More important for the AccLab is women themselves. We shall use human-centred design as one of the main tools to ensure that women and their needs are at the heart of the programmes and projects.

Let’s get it started.

*Special thanks to our colleagues from the programme units and projects to warmly welcome us on board and provide rich data for our analysis and women who entrusted their stories and lived experiences to UNDP Belarus. 


By Viktoria Lavriniuk, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Belarus Accelerator Lab