Backing successful women as role models is vital for society, but Europe is not doing enough – writes Marina Yannakoudakis MEP

Entrepreneurs of both genders have to be, by definition, focused on their enterprise and committed to success. In the business world, those running their own companies are often far more dedicated than employees. They put in longer hours; making personal sacrifices to succeed against the competition.

For female entrepreneurs, the stakes can be even higher as they may have to overcome discrimination in what has traditionally been a male environment. Many have to juggle their own aspirations to succeed alongside their commitment to their family. Even though we live in the 21st century, women are still very much at the forefront in the home – especially, when parents or guardians.

Yet, in spite of all the constraints and restrictions upon them, women have proved to be more than capable in the workplace. Recognising women’s abilities in the workplace is vital. This will not only encourage them to move into the business world, but will also ensure they move onto an even playing field where there is no room for gender discrimination.

I recognise that female entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized enterprises face many different problems in achieving their goals – in the different member states. I recognise the contribution, women in employment can make to both the community and the economy of the European Union. And I believe that, ultimately, women have a right to choose the role they play both within their home and within the community they live in. We have to make this choice a reality, through practical guidelines and best–practice solutions.

But, member states differ in both their approach to women looking to run their own businesses and the support given. The European Commission leads the female ambassadors’ scheme in 17 countries. And the role of these ambassadors is to promote and assist women in the world of business. Although, ambassadorships are voluntary and often taken up by people – who are also running a company. This limits their effectiveness. Nonetheless, they are extremely successful as a means of sharing experiences and support among females at regional or local level.

Member states have each taken on different approaches to supporting and promoting women in decision making and in the boardroom. Austria – for example – has increased childcare services, childcare benefit and encourages girls to take a non-traditional profession. Meanwhile, the UK has moved forward with the implementation of the Small Business Act. It seeks to improve access to finance, reduce burdens and enable SMEs to access new markets.

The problems faced by women vary from nation to nation. Some states offer more support than others and the cultural differences in a female’s role also influences the chances they will have to set up businesses. There is no right or wrong support system and those in different member states address specific cultural and individual needs. Although, there are common areas where initiatives could be shared.

As mentioned, the commission administers the voluntary group of women ambassadors in member states, who have joined the scheme. But this scheme needs greater support. Volunteers are effective, but for the scheme to be more productive a more formal set–up is needed. In particular, possible office support. In today’s economic climate, money is not easily found so I would suggest using existing facilities such as the EU offices. Facility seminars could be run from a small office spaces in EU buildings and women ambassadors could have a base there and someone co–ordinating their work.

In addition, academic institutions could offer specialised courses to support women wishing to start a company. Such training could be coupled with practical support on how to set up a company, the legal requirements and how to organise a business. Later, peer support systems could be harnessed. The promotion of active ageing schemes could harness experience from retired entrepreneurs to assist in this support.

Women are now a significant part of the workforce. So while legislation is not the way forward, I would say sharing of best practice would be a positive move. Before any real recommendations can be formulated, we need to know who the women entrepreneurs are – through a systematic and specific collection of data for analysis. At present, there is a haze of facts – as some women work on their own, some with husbands or partners, some unofficially from home. Each group has different needs and requires different support.

At a regional or local level, companies need to be encouraged to support women – not necessarily through enforced quotas, but through internal targets. Boardrooms need to accept women on equal terms, provided they are of equal calibre and qualifications. Banks are also important support mechanisms. Some already have systems in place to support women setting up business. And, indeed, recognise the unique approach women have to work.

But there is a fine line here between encouraging female entrepreneurs and positive discrimination, which can result in a down–scaling of respect for women in the workplace. Family–friendly policies will encourage women into the workplace – for example, sustainable childcare facilities as what is good for the company is good for women and vice versa.

Support needs to be local, regional and national and through different media. The internet and online support can offer much to women who are working from home and in remote areas. What do women want? Most women, who were asked, replied: time; time to cope with domestic responsibilities and also to run their own business and fulfil their own dreams. This means proportionate and affordable support in childcare, a widening of roles and empowerment for women to give them the confidence to go out and do what they want. The promotion of successful females as role models, through the media is absolutely vital. Annual awards for women, who excel are needed and should be supported. It would certainly be a good start.