EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Challenges facing women entrepreneurs

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A study focusing on entrepreneurs in Malta has compared the attitudes of men and women who run their own businesses. The study shows that gender differences still dominate in entrepreneurship. Only 18% of Maltese entrepreneurs are women and they generally work in fields perceived as ‘female’. Women are seen as being more cautious in decision-making, and the impact of family care responsibilities on them is greater, affecting their motivation and the way they structure their work.

About the study

An EU-funded study has looked at issues faced by women entrepreneurs in Malta. The study, commissioned by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE), shows that gender is still a major issue for business people. The study was part of a broader research project called Unlocking the Female Potential (3.5Mb PDF) published in early 2012.

The aim of the study was to identify the major differences between female and male entrepreneurs, including motivational factors, training opportunities and incentives. The study looked at the challenges and supporting structures available, and made recommendations on how things could be improved.


This study used mixed research methods and was based on face-to-face interviews with 602 male and female entrepreneurs. The qualitative part included 19 in-depth interviews and six focus groups with entrepreneurs. Qualitative interviews were also held with 20 key stakeholders representing civil society, employers, unions and government.

The motivating factors

The vast majority (82%) of entrepreneurs in Malta are men who operate as sole-traders or are self-employed. Their businesses largely fall into the category of micro-enterprises employing ten employees or fewer, and the largest cohort (36%) operate in the wholesale and retail sector.

A substantial number of men (70%) said they were the main breadwinners when they started their business, while the majority of women (58%) were not responsible for the main household income. Slightly more women (15%) than men (10%) chose self-employment as a means of combining work with caring duties. Over time, it seems the number of women and men who used flexi-time arrangements increased to 38% and 20% respectively.

When it came to education and training, around 15% of all entrepreneurs had graduated from university in a subject related to their business. However, twice as many female entrepreneurs (20%) seemed willing to undergo further training compared to men (10%).

When probed about the motivational factors that led them to become entrepreneurs, a third of all female and male entrepreneurs suggested that ambition was the initial motivator to set their own business. While more men said their motivation was in order to be their own boss (12% of men against 7% of women), more women went into business to be financially better off (15% of women against 9% of men). This suggested that what motivated women and men to start a business was similar but not identical.

Different management styles

When asked about perceived differences in the way that women and men ran their businesses, the majority (54%) replied that there were no differences. However, when questioned further, nearly half of all respondents (46%) suggested that men tended to adopt a more aggressive style of management and make their decisions faster. Women were perceived to be more cautious and normally spent more time evaluating matters before arriving at a decision.

When it came to choosing their line of business, women were strongly linked to occupations such as beauty, hairdressing, childcare and the fashion sector, while construction, real estate and the communications business sector were largely linked to men. These clearly indicated traditionally gendered choices.

Challenges faced by entrepreneurs

Securing sufficient money to start a business was considered to be the biggest hurdle face by both men (33%) and women (22%). However, fewer women saw the financing of their business as a problem – possibly because women tended to start business ventures which were more modest in nature.

The major challenges to entrepreneurship were identified by both men and women as fierce competition (29%), the negative international outlook (25%) and cash flow (18%).

When asked whether caring responsibilities had an effect on their decision to start a business, a large majority of male entrepreneurs (73%) said it did not, compared to 44% of women. This suggests that caring responsibilities have a bigger impact on female entrepreneurs and, in fact, more women than men said they had set up their own business in order to cope with the family demands. Some women said that they postponed opening up their business until their children were older.

Suggested solutions

When asked what would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to start their own business, the setting up of a one-stop shop was suggested by most respondents (91%).

This was followed by suggestions for more training programmes (90%) and the need to set up more family-friendly supporting structures, such as childcare services.

A large majority (87%) suggested that entrepreneurship studies should be included as part of the school curricula at secondary and post-secondary level.


In spite of clear gender differences, half of the respondents (50.5%) believed that equality among the sexes has been achieved and the needs of aspiring female and male employees should be identical. However, the evidence suggests otherwise, given the low number of female entrepreneurs and the different approach to business identified by this study. The findings seem to suggest that more needs to be done to close the gap between the numbers of female and male entrepreneurs in Malta.

Given the high numbers of entrepreneurs who wanted a one-stop shop for business start-ups, it is worth noting that in early 2012 the Government of Malta launched Business First, an initiative to reduce bureaucracy and to create a one-stop shop for potential and existing entrepreneurs.


National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (2012), ‘Entrepreneurs and Vulnerable Workers in Malta’, Unlocking the female potential, NCPE, Malta, pp. 64–120.

Anna Borg, Centre for Labour Studies

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