Let’s shine a spotlight on the challenges facing female immigrant entrepreneurs

The challenges facing women in the workplace have been well documented in recent years. We have also seen countless heart-breaking stories of migrants over the past decade. In general, COVID-19 has negatively impacted both women and migrants disproportionately compared to males and ordinary citizens of a country.

Now imagine being a female migrant. This person usually faces a double discrimination which causes worse employment outcomes in comparison to migrant men and native-born women. According to a 2018 EU study, women born outside the EU are both more likely to be over-qualified for their job and less likely to be employed than native-born women and migrant men. In particular, the gap between the share of employed non-EU-28-born women and native women is eight percentage points larger than the gap among men.

In this context, self-employment and entrepreneurship may represent a way to access the labour market but also, as often underlined, a pathway towards empowerment and increased gender equality. For these reasons, (female) immigrant entrepreneurship is strongly supported by supra-governmental and governmental initiatives, such as the European Union’s 2012 “Entrepreneurship 2020 Action Plan” which invites the States to “remove legal obstacles to establishment of businesses by legal migrant entrepreneurs… Facilitate access to information and networking for migrant entrepreneurs and prospective migrant entrepreneurs” (p. 25).

Over the years, indeed, academics and policymakers have identified the positive benefits of migrant entrepreneurship. It has been frequently pointed out that, by starting a business, for example, migrants contribute to the employment, growth and innovation of the host country; at the same time, they also positively affect the home country thanks to the “transfer of business and technological know-how, information exchange and remittances” according to a Global Entrepreneurship 2012 study.

However, drawbacks exist: migrants, indeed, are more likely to be discriminated by banks, customers or business partners. They generally have fewer network ties than non-migrants which cause difficulties to access to crucial resources. These obstacles seem to be exacerbated in the case of female immigrant entrepreneurs.

Stemming from this premise, Osif aims at shedding lights on the women immigrant female entrepreneurship in order to define strategies able to enhance its contribution to the socio-economic context on which the firms are grounded. Italy was the first country we analysed.

According to Istat, on 1/1/2019, more than 5.2 million foreigners were in Italy (in 2001, this number was 3.9 million). Foreigners are equal to 8.7% of the Italian population. Between 2011 and 2018, businesses led by Italian entrepreneurs decreased by 2.8% (-158,000), while those managed by immigrant entrepreneurs increased by 32.6% (+ 148.000). The trend also continued during 2019, resulting in 616,000 immigrant firms, equal to 10.1% of the total registered companies in the country.

Out of 602,180 firms in Italy led by immigrants in 2018, 145,000 (i.e. 24%) were led by women immigrants. Across the EU, data shows that in 2018, 10.3% of migrant women born in EU Member States and 9.4% of those born outside of the EU were self-employed (OECD/EU, 2019).

Despite these numbers, the role of migrating women is still under-evaluated. This is all the more the case in 2020 when so much emphasis has been put on the impact of COVID-19 on Italian citizens. This lack of interest could be in part justified in the past, when women often migrated to follow migrant male family members or to marry someone in another country. However, it can be no longer accepted, as, indeed the most recent data highlight that women are, to date, a consistent part of flows of migrant workers, moving on their own to become the principal wage earners for their families.

Let’s shine a spotlight on the challenges and opportunities facing female entrepreneurs. It will not only help Italy, but also many migrants’ home countries. At the same, the best practices from Italy can be applied in other countries.

Sara Poggesi is the director and Michela Mari is the vice director of Osservatorio Scientifico Imprese Femminili (OSIF), a research center that is part of Tor Vergata University.