Women in Europe are under-represented in international trade with only 20% of exporting companies in the EU owned, led or managed by women. This is one of the findings of a study From Europe to the World: Understanding challenges for European Businesswomen by the International Trade Centre and financed by the European Commission. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström hosted a conference on 30th September to look at the results of this study and to seek to achieve greater involvement of women in international trade, in the EU and beyond. The study, conducted in 2019, covers more than 1000 companies across 12 EU countries in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors exporting outside the EU.

The study found that women-led companies are mainly found in sectors with lower export growth potential such as the clothing and textiles sector. In almost half the companies surveyed, women account for 30% or less of the total workforce and only one in five companies reaches gender parity in employment. Fewer than one in three companies have reached 30% or more women in senior executive positions. Women-led companies are at a disadvantage when looking for skills, finance from commercial banks and business networks. However, when European companies are led by women they are more likely to employ other women, both in senior positions and across the business.

How to increase representation of women

The study makes recommendations to European policymakers and businesses on how to ensure greater participation of women in international trade. Interventions should target small and medium-sized businesses and help women to access skills, funding from commercial banks and business networks. Women entrepreneurs must organise themselves better at EU level to make sure that their views are heard. The participation of women in trade can be supported through platforms provided by free trade agreements or through cooperation at a multilateral level including sharing best practices, promoting access to information and networking opportunities and improving the collection and analysis of gender-disaggregated data. Trade promotion agencies could play a greater role in targeting support to women-led companies to help them enter and grow in extra-EU trade. However, much of the action necessary goes beyond trade policy to domestic policies including social, labour and education policies.

Commission study of female participation in EU exporting

The Commission’s Directorate-General for Trade has also been looking at this issue and has published a Chief Economist Note. The most recent figures show that in 2017 exports were supporting 36 million jobs in the EU. There were more than 13.5 million female workers in the EU whose jobs were supported by EU exports to the world, up by 5.5 million since 2008. However, this means that only 38% of the jobs linked to exports to the world are taken up by women. The report suggests that the gender gap is largely due to the concentration of female employment in the less export-oriented sectors, notably in service industries such as education, human and health services. More than one fifth of the female jobs supported by EU exports are in administration, supporting services and the wholesale trade. Women employed in exporting activities are however better remunerated than female workers in the whole economy but there is still a gender pay gap to the advantage of male workers in export-dependent jobs.

Gender equality is Commission priority

Speaking at the conference Commissioner Malmström said that she was pleased that gender equality is clearly a priority for the Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen. “It is vital that we capitalise on this to make sure every arm of EU policymaking is making a positive difference for women and girls everywhere.”

Last reviewed 22 November 2019