06/26/2015 04:15 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2016

Ooh la la! Fresh Look Needed on French Policy for Women Entrepreneurs

The world needs entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs create new business and employment, contribute to national income, enable social change and revitalize communities. They change the way we live and work for the better. Often offered as a policy response to unemployment and stagnant economic growth, entrepreneurship enables individuals to improve their personal wealth and wellbeing as well as that of those around them.

In recent years, the global economy has witnessed high instability, stagnating economic growth and increasing unemployment, particularly among young people, making the call for entrepreneurship all the more compelling. While some of the world's dominant economic players - the US, Germany and China - have managed to withstand the crisis, France, in particular, lags behind1. Recent statistics reveal there are currently 5,530,600 on the unemployment register, a 6.2% increase in just one year2. These developments have heightened the appeal of entrepreneurship for French policy makers but questions have been raised about the country's ability to mobilize its entrepreneurial spirit.

The French government has implemented various measures to make business startup a significantly easier process. Combining a vision of gender equality and improved economic performance, the government has particularly focused on increasing the number of women entrepreneurs. In 2013, 30% of all new business ventures in France were created by women3, a rate significantly inferior to North America. The French government hopes to grow this to 40% by 20174. The action plan is organized around three main strands: 1) raising awareness about women's entrepreneurship as a potential career option 2) improving advisory and support facilities available to women entrepreneurs and 3) facilitating their access to finance.

As part of raising awareness, there has been a justifiable recognition of the importance of role models. Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Xavier Niel. A look at the French (and
global) media reveals the typical entrepreneur depicted as a (white) male hero. There is a lack of role models for women in entrepreneurship, particularly high performing ones. In order to promote entrepreneurship as a viable career option for women, successful women entrepreneurs must be given higher visibility.

However, there is also a need to focus on the sector of business women entrepreneurs engage in and their growth ambitions. Only one in ten high tech/innovative start-ups in France are led by women5. Women remain largely under-represented in the high tech sector. Countless reports document their lower initial investment and modest appetite for growth compared to their male counterparts6.

Clearly, it is not enough to encourage more women entrepreneurs, there is also a need to push for women entrepreneurs in high growth sectors as well as growth oriented women entrepreneurs in every sector.

Case in point: Sandrine engages with a start-up program for new ventures. She sets up her business and runs it successfully (alone) for the first three years, building a loyal clientele and solid reputation. In year four, Sandrine falls pregnant and needs to take time off to look after her baby. Who continues Sandrine's work in her absence? What happens Sandrine's clients?
If Sandrine is encouraged not only to set up a business but also to grow her business, eventualities such as maternity leave don't throw the business off course and Sandrine can pick up where she left off when she feels ready to return to work (rather than run the business haphazardly: juggling phone calls and emails with spoiled nappies and baby bottles).

In March, the APCE7's runs its annual 'Semaine de la sensibilisation des jeunes à l'entrepreneuriat féminin' - a nationwide campaign to build awareness of entrepreneurship among young women. The campaign runs in-class talks, roundtable discussions and presentations showcasing women entrepreneurial role models to young students. A look at the campaign's facebook page shows how many French women entrepreneurs talk about the benefits of entrepreneurship as a way to balance work and home commitments, notably childcare. But just how many men entrepreneurs do we hear talking about this issue? Despite the high level of dual earner couples nationally, French women still bear a disproportionate amount of the domestic responsibilities. If societal norms governing responsibility for childcare remain unchanged, there is a grave risk of reproducing the gender inequality which exists in the workplace in the realm of entrepreneurship. Women exiting the workforce (and entering entrepreneurship) in order to better respond to work/life balance tensions may change their immediate circumstances but this doesn't resolve the underlying problem: an organizational context which lacks flexibility and a societal norm which holds parenthood as a woman's primary responsibility. Furthermore, this promotion of entrepreneurship as a way to happily 'balance' domestic responsibilities and work risks reproduces and maintains an unequal playing field for men and women entrepreneurs.

In France, there is also a growing attachment to the notion of 'mampreneur'. Advocates of the term and practice stress the flexibility that being an entrepreneur offers mothers. Integrating business start-up and motherhood enables women reap the benefits of financial independence without losing work life balance. Yet, while being a 'mampreneur' may allow women simultaneously engage in childcare and paid employment, these entrepreneurial ventures remain small scale and often take second place to domestic responsibilities, limiting growth potential.

In promoting entrepreneurship there is a need to look at the type of entrepreneurship being promoted. French policy makers need to think not just about making entrepreneurship more attractive to women, but also about making more women entrepreneurs growth oriented and changing the domestic division of labor. In that way, who knows, by 2017 France could have 50% of new businesses created by women with growth ambitions, furthering not just gender equality but boosting economic competitiveness too.