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Trade agreements may help women‑owned exporters facing barriers in the post‑pandemic recovery

Women-owned small and medium‑sized enterprise (SME)Footnote 1 exporters have experienced encouraging gains over the last decade, and as of 2017 were almost as likely to export at 11.1% vs. 12.2% for men‑owned SMEs (latest data available)Footnote 2. Nevertheless, SMEs have been hard‑hit by the pandemic, particularly services industries in which women‑owned SMEs are concentrated. While goods exports have largely recovered, services exports remain 15.2% below pre‑pandemic (February 2020) levels.

As exporters begin their post‑pandemic recovery, it is important to understand how women‑owned SME exporters experience trade barriers relative to their male and equally‑owned counterparts to ensure an inclusive recovery and to further advance women exporters’ success.

Firms that export face various obstacles related to tariffs, logistics, border procedures, and regulations, that can affect their export performance. Looking at how these obstacles are perceived by Canadian SMEs across genders of ownership, women‑owned exporters were more likely than men or equally‑owned SMEs to consider logistical obstacles, border obstacles, administrative obstacles in the foreign market, and administrative obstacles in Canada as barriers while exporting.

Data: Statistics Canada, Survey on Financing and Growth of Small and Medium Enterprises, 2017
Source: Global Affairs Canada, Office of the Chief Economist

Proportion of SMEs Reporting Obstacles While Exporting as Moderate or Major, by Gender of Ownership, 2017
     Women‑ownedEqually‑ownedMen‑ownedAll SMEs
Logistical24%19%19%20%
Border22%17%17%18%
Foreign administrative19%21%14%16%
Financial risk11%16%16%15%
Market knowledge11%16%14%14%
Lack financing/Cash‑flow9%10%14%13%
Domestic administrative11%8%10%10%
I.P. Issues3%2%7%5%
Other5%13%9%9%

Data: Statistics Canada, Survey on Financing and Growth of Small and Medium Enterprises, 2017
Source: Global Affairs Canada, Office of the Chief Economist

Differences in the gender distribution of SMEs across industries is one potential explanation for the different perceptions of exporting barriers. Women‑owned SMEs make up a large share (46.2%) of exporters in the retail trade sector, which may involve many small international shipments and thus magnify obstacles at, or getting things to, the border. That sector was hit harder by disruptions caused by the pandemic, and experienced a slower recovery.  As of November 2020, the number of SME exporters from the retail sector was still 8% below its pre‑pandemic level compared to 0.5% of exporters overall.

The Upshot

Reducing trade barriers is a way to increase market access for women‑owned SMEs and ensure an inclusive economic recovery. Trade agreements, trade facilitation measures and information support services can all play a role in addressing gender specific barriers.

Canadian companies can benefit from preferential access to 1.5 billion potential consumers around the world through 15 free trade agreements (FTAs) in force in 51 countries.

Trade commissioners in Canada and around the world can provide expert advice to help you benefit from preferential access to these markets.

For a more detailed analysis of trade barriers and women-owned SMEs, please visit Global Affairs Canada’s Office of the Chief Economist webpage.


1 Women‑owned enterprises are those with more than 50% of female ownership.

2 Global Affairs Canada, Office of the Chief Economist (2019)

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