COVID-19 and Women Entrepreneurship

19 March 2020

Policy interventions to protect and strengthen women entrepreneurs in the duration and aftermath of COVID-19

As members of the Expert Panel on Women Entrepreneurs, we are asked to provide advice on advancing Canada’s women entrepreneurs for the benefit of the Canadian economy. Women are a critical source of talent to build businesses, strengthen the economy, and support our parents, children, and communities.

The COVID-19 crisis will intensify that burden as small- and medium-sized businesses feel the impact of workers staying home and businesses and schools closing.

Women entrepreneurs will feel the oncoming shock more than most due to several factors: they tend to run smaller businesses, are less capitalized, and are heavily concentrated in the services sector – a sector most impacted by COVID restrictions. On top of that, many women are now managing child-care during school closures and elder care while older Canadians are encouraged to self-isolate.

Accordingly, COVID-19 has put women’s entrepreneurship at great risk. While they are certainly not the only group affected, we urge Canadian politicians and business leaders to consider the special circumstances and vulnerabilities of women entrepreneurs, who already face systemic barriers to financial and social capital. Even a limited shut-down or slow-down will jeopardize the survival of many women-led SME businesses. Targeted interventions are warranted.

We urge lawmakers to act swiftly to allocate substantial emergency funding to support women entrepreneurs, especially in the hardest-hit industries, and particularly those who are also caregivers.

We urge business leaders to work closely with government to ease the burden. If timely intervention does not occur, we risk erasing the significant gains women entrepreneurs have made in recent years – with knock-on effects for inclusive economic growth.

To this end, we recommend eight specific interventions to help women-owned businesses survive this initial period and increase their chances of recovery.

Provide short-term liquidity through 0% interest loans. Statistically, women-owned businesses are more likely to be small businesses in the retail and services sectors. These businesses are seeing an unexpected and significant drop in revenue. A 0% interest loan provided through BDC or EDC could help with near-term expenses such as rent and utilities that could otherwise force these businesses into bankruptcy.

Provide short-term liquidity through creative repayment schedules, including principal postponement of debt repayment for a period of at least six months. This would be most beneficial on government guaranteed loans, including the Canada Small Business Loan, which is a primary lending instrument used in service-based industries such as restaurant and retail.

Implement a tax holiday. Another way to increase liquidity is to delay collection of HST and payroll taxes for six months. This would allow businesses to avoid or minimize layoffs.

Immediate compensation for primary caregivers. Many school boards have closed indefinitely, with some expected to remain closed for the rest of the school year. In most cases, this means at least one parent (typically the mother) will need to be present with limited ability to work from home. Compensation for primary caregivers through refundable tax credits or grants would allow entrepreneurs to manage the double shift and hire support if needed.

Emergency investment into childcare and eldercare programs. Disruptions to schools and health care capacity will ultimately be felt by primary caregivers. Significant investment in safe and secure programs is critical in the near- and medium-term.

Freeze rent and financial payments for six months, particularly in sectors most affected by COVID restrictions, such as services, travel and entertainment. Provide tax holidays or other incentives to banks and landlords as needed.

Expand SME procurement programs at all levels of government. Securing a large contract goes a long way to providing working capital for small business, and women entrepreneurs do not capture their fair share. Procurement programs should be urgently adapted to prioritize SMEs, include quotas for women-owned businesses, and provide incentives for large companies to submit joint bids with small ones.

Make mental health a priority. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, women entrepreneurs in early and growth-stages with fewer employees or less revenue are more likely to report mental health issues. This will undoubtedly be exacerbated by COVID-related anxiety and fears about the future. Support for mental health and well-being is critical.

We recognize that all Canadians are feeling this crisis, and we are particularly grateful to health care and emergency services workers who are putting their lives on hold and at risk. We are looking to government and business leaders for swift actions that will help us emerge from this unprecedented crisis stronger and even more united.

Sincerely, the members of the Expert Panel on Women Entrepreneurs

Danièle Henkel, Co-Chair (Quebec)

Laura McGee, Co-Chair (Ontario)

Shauna Harper (British Columbia)

Virginia McGowan (Prince Edward Island)

Maudeleine Myrthil (Quebec)

Shannon Pestun (Alberta)

Sharon Zohar (Ontario)

About the author

Daniele Henkel

About Daniele Henkel


A true inspiration for entrepreneurs, Danièle Henkel has made her mark in Quebec – and across the globe. Despite all the obstacles that have stood in her way, her leadership and determination have propelled her to the top of the business world, particularly in the field of medical aesthetics and well-being.