How have enterprise support organisations supported women in Scotland?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This blog was written by Dr Norin Arshed of the University of Dundee, as part of a Fellowship with the Scottish Parliament Information Centre. The analysis and conclusions are made by the author. As with all guest blogs, what follows are the views of the author, not those of SPICe or the Scottish Parliament.

My first blog (February 2021) considered how the pandemic was affecting women entrepreneurs in Scotland.  This blog now looks at the support and advice that has come from Scotland’s enterprise support organisations (ESOs) for women entrepreneurs.

The ESOs encompass those who help businesses ‘on the ground.’ They are dedicated to supporting the creation and growth of businesses. Interviews were undertaken with 26 ESOs, 11 of which were focussed solely on providing gender specific assistance. The ESOs include both public and private organisations.

In looking at what support and advice was available, accessible, and appropriate for women entrepreneurs in Scotland during the pandemic, several themes emerged including:

  1. Business support pre-COVID-19 and during COVID-19
  2. Challenges facing the ESOs
  3. Successes and opportunities for ESOs
  4. Support needed for women entrepreneurs
  5. Impacts and changes for the future

Before discussing these themes and findings, I’ll set out some background on the support landscape for SMEs and women entrepreneurship during COVID-19.

Setting the scene: advice and support during COVID-19

Small-to-medium enterprises (SME) have been hit hard during the COVID-19 crisis and throughout the first lockdown (March-June/July 2020). It was estimated that only around 80% of businesses with a presence in Scotland were trading. As lockdown restrictions eased, this proportion rose to around 95% in August 2020 reflecting that the economy had largely reopened. However, a new wave of COVID infections in the latter part of 2020 and early 2021 saw another lockdown with a new wave of support packages to offset the impact.

The Scottish Government introduced measures to limit the impact of COVID-19 on the business community in Scotland. Since the start of the pandemic last spring, the Scottish Government has allocated over £3 billion in business support to help mitigate the economic impacts of the virus. This support is in addition to the support provided by the UK Government.

Although trading conditions remain challenging for businesses, with many operating below capacity and adapting to operate in a COVID safe manner, amid subdued demand and tight cashflow constraints, Scotland has a well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem. Scotland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem encompasses a wide variety of support channels which have delivered support and advice to SMEs throughout the pandemic, alongside Government support packages.

Challenges for women entrepreneurs are not unique to Scotland

Though the pandemic has had far-reaching effects on all entrepreneurs, women entrepreneurs have been disproportionally impacted by the restrictions that have been put in place to protect against the virus. Prior research has suggested that women tend to be more adversely affected by economic slumps and natural disasters and are more likely to adopt a defensive crisis response stance. For example, women entrepreneurs predominantly take care of house and family, which leads to more difficult situations regarding the work–family conflict and internal psychological balances than their male peers. The International Monetary Fund warns that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to roll back gains in women’s economic opportunities, widening gender gaps that persist despite 30 years of progress.

The pandemic has highlighted global challenges for women entrepreneurs because:

The next section considers some of the key themes emerging from the ESO interviews.

Data collection

The 26 interviews took place between October and December 2020. The participants were from various regions in Scotland, including Glasgow City, Aberdeen City, Inverness and Highland, Stirling and Clackmannanshire, Edinburgh and South East Scotland, and Tay Cities.

All interviews were recorded (with permission) and all participants signed (or were recorded verbally agreeing) to participate in the study and to remain anonymous in any subsequent reporting.

It should be noted that these findings are based on rigorous qualitative research protocols.  The aim is not to generalise the findings to ESOs.  Instead, the study seeks to understand the support and advice on offer by the ESOs. Furthermore, the initiatives and specific localities cannot be disclosed as this may reveal identities of individual ESOs and interviewees.

Five emerging findings

The emerging findings highlight the support and advice that was offered during the pandemic. The findings also highlight that many of those on the front-line in assisting businesses, themselves faced challenges and successes in doing so.

Please note the codes for the interviewees – ALL-Interviewee (indicates that the ESO was not a gender-specific organisation) and WO-Interview (offered only gender-specific advice and support).

1. Business support was important pre-COVID-19 and has remained so during COVID-19.  However, the form and the focus of support has adapted to the new circumstances.

Twenty-one of the ESOs offered gender-specific support for women entrepreneurs. Much of this came in the form of advice and support with respect to coaching, training, networking, and finance:

“So, pre-COVID we were doing six meetings, face-to-face meetings, so that’s one every second month and we were generally attracting between 25 and 35 women to those, every second month. We were alternating between lunchtime and evening so that it attracted a different audience each time, and we were contacting speakers” (ALL-Interviewee 9).

Also, numerous ESOs were keen to play a role in closing the gender gap for women entrepreneurs and were supportive of gender-specific support:

“Men’s entrepreneurial market tends to have quite an organic mentorship program…use XXX as an example, they’ve got an accelerator program, but 85% of the people that go through the accelerator program are male-driven businesses.” (ALL-Interviewee 10).

Since the pandemic, the ESOs have become aware of the exacerbated challenges facing women entrepreneurs and they have tried to address their shortcomings:

“So, we’ve started a series of activities. We do a monthly coffee and chat session, which is just a drop-in, no agenda, maximum of an hour…and we’re just about to start a series of video casts, as well” (ALL-Interviewee 4).

The gender-specific ESOs tended to focus on contacting women for one-to-ones in trying to support them:

“I spent a lot of time just chatting ideas through with people and offering support” (WO-Interviewee 10).

2. Three main challenges facing the ESOs; a lack of interaction for events and workshops, difficulties engaging stakeholders and getting payments for registration, and generally over saturation on zoom. 

Firstly, for twelve of ESOs, a lack of interaction was an issue for the events and workshops they held with women entrepreneurs:

“With this contrived scenario, where you’re either in a breakout room that you’ve been put in to that you might not have chosen to be with these people, but only one person can speak at a time, and we’ve lost the buzz” (WO-Interviewee 4).

“We were finding that a lot of the businesses that are starting up actually like the face-to-face, just to speak to somebody…they just want to talk through their idea and see somebody and have a coffee and kind of feel like it’s a wee bit normal. So, we are missing that” (ALL-Interviewee 9).

Secondly, ten of the ESOs (membership oriented) reported problems of engaging stakeholders and getting payment for registration:

“So, I have noticed that our membership has suffered as a result. People haven’t renewed when they normally would have done” (WO-Interviewee 4).

Lastly, many ESOs (15) explained that there were too many offers of events and webinars for women, and many people were oversaturated by zoom:

“…everyone’s Zoomed out, they’re tired of being on Zoom…feedback to us was that we’re Zoomed out and fed up” (WO-Interviewee 6).

3. Successes and opportunities for ESOs including more referrals, collaboration with other enterprise agencies, opportunities from smaller group settings, and scope for more digital services.

All ESOs highlighted that despite the pandemic there were also successes and opportunities. Some of the successes included: more referrals of individuals looking to start-up their businesses, collaborations with other ESOs, smaller group settings which were more effective amongst the participants and, opportunities arising in the form of digitisation of their services.

An example of the successes includes:

“We have seen a minimum 250% increase in demand since we went digital…We ran the first one completely off our own backs in July, we did it at our own risk and we had 40 places and we had 80 apply. It was full and the waiting list was big enough to fill the next one” (WO Interviewee 7).

Opportunities opening up for the ESOs were evident:

“But we’ve been writing the online version and we’re building alumni packages. We’re going to go for national, and hopefully international reach now” (WO-Interviewee 10).

4. Support needed for women entrepreneurs includes financial support and confidence building.

All ESOs recognised that many women entrepreneurs were facing challenges which had been amplified by unprecedented times. They highlighted that women entrepreneurs would require further financial support and incentives to start-up or continue:

“A kind of kick starter… they may be women who are working part-time…whatever money they bring in every month makes a big difference to the household…if they could maybe have more of an incentive, even £1,000, I think that would give people 3-4 months to try and launch their business” (ALL-Interviewee 7).

Concerns regarding the levels of confidence in women entrepreneurs were highlighted, especially those starting up their own business:

“The women that are starting-up, some are very confident and know exactly what they’re doing, and others need a lot of individual advice and work and face-to-face stuff” (ALL-Interviewee 9).

The challenges were not new and the ESOs did recognise them and were working in addressing them.  The pandemic prompted the ESOs to understand how they can address and deliver more effectively to women entrepreneurs. The next section covers this in more detail.

5. Impacts and changes for the future, including more scope for hybrid learning and online delivery.

Many of those delivering to women entrepreneurs mentioned they are now changing their services, offering an “operational approach”:

“I think COVID’s just going to make us think differently about what we do, how we do things and how we deliver” (ALL-Interviewee 4).

“The plan is to run smaller cohorts of 20. So, we still want to have face-to-face Zoom calls weekly, and it will an eight-week course instead of an eight-month course” (WO-Interviewee 10).

There were also discussions about adapting a hybrid learning model which would still have an element of online delivery but face-to-face would resume to some extent:

“I think we’ll blend but the balance might still be more digital because the digital has worked so well. The feedback that we’re getting from the female founders is “we love this, we want more of it” actually, and not so much, “I can’t wait for when we can do all this face-to-face”. Of course, people like face-to-face, because just the relationship building and that is good, but in terms of the business end of it… it’s more the interpersonal bit. On a business level and being to help them business-wise and get them what they need, digital is working. We will do some face-to-face, but I think we’ll do more digital than face-to-face” (WO-Interviewee 4).


The evidence highlights that ESOs pivoted quickly to support women entrepreneurs during the pandemic. The business support provided during COVID-19 indicates that ESOs were supportive of women entrepreneurs and their challenges, which included finance, confidence for women and at times encouraging them due to their lack of interaction with the ESOs. However, ESOs are now exploring how they could strengthen and re-design their current offering to women entrepreneurs, including offering a hybrid learning model and nurturing an environment which is conducive to women through their operational approaches.

My third and final blog will look at some of the recommendations that have arisen from the evidence from women entrepreneurs and ESOs during the pandemic.