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OPINION March 8, 2022

Europe and Central Asia Economies Need More Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders

Women’s participation in the labor market drives economic and business growth. Yet the global economy incurs significant costs by failing to take full advantage of women’s skills, experience, and productivity. Global wealth could increase by as much as $160 trillion if women had a greater role in the economy, working in paid jobs and earning wages equal to those earned by men.

In the Europe and Central Asia region, women represent a major source of talent and productivity. Yet women remain highly underrepresented in business. The potential economic benefit of gender equality in the region’s labor market is significant: if female labor force participation were at the same level as men, it could boost regional GDP by as much as $1.1 trillion, or 23% of annual regional GDP, according to the ILO.

The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2022 report, which measures laws and regulations in 190 economies and how they impact women’s decision-making at different stages of their lives, finds that 17% of economies in Europe and Central Asia have implemented at least one reform since October 2020 to improve legal equality for women. However, while the region does well overall compared to other regions, there is still wide variation in gender equality among economies.

Gender gaps persist in labor force participation and earnings in the region. The labor force participation rate for men is 66%, compared to 50.6% for women. The major constraints facing women include lack of affordable and quality childcare, the double burden of domestic and professional work, access to safe transport, and pressure to conform to gender roles. Legal constraints also exist on many types of jobs women are permitted to perform. The pay gap between men and women is about 30%.

Barriers to female leadership also persist, preventing women from advancing into top business management positions such as boards and corporate leadership. Female entrepreneurship is low due to limited access to assets, financial services, as well as information and markets.

A very important obstacle faced by many women is not having a bank account. Financial inclusion is essential to achieving inclusive growth, yet women in Europe and Central Asia still face barriers in access to, and use of, financial services. Women are 15% less likely than men to have any savings, and they are 28% less likely to have enough savings to start a business.

The COVID-19 crisis has compounded challenges for women and girls, exacerbating barriers to participation in the economy. Women have been especially affected in the labor market because they are disproportionately employed in some of the hardest-hit sectors. In the region’s hospitality sector, women-led businesses experienced a drop in sales almost 10% greater than similar businesses led by men, and women-led businesses were 11% more likely to close. The pandemic has also likely expanded gaps in pay, access to finance, and digital opportunities for women.

A major development priority for the World Bank is helping countries in the region realize their full economic potential by empowering women, including through support to female business leaders and entrepreneurs.

In Tajikistan, for example, our Rural Economy Development Project is helping to narrow the gender gap by assisting female entrepreneurs in the agribusiness and tourism sectors, especially those who lack financing and training opportunities.

The Georgia National Innovation Ecosystem (GENIE) Project is helping increase innovation by Georgian firms and boosting their participation in the digital economy, including by supporting women’s training. To date, women account for about 54 percent of a total of 27,000 beneficiaries.

In Serbia, the Accelerating Innovation and Growth Entrepreneurship Project contributes to growth and competitiveness by improving scientific research, innovative entrepreneurship and access to finance. Of the grants awarded so far, totaling $1.3 million, 56 percent has been allocated to women.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, our $100 million Emergency Support for MSMEs Project, co-financed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is enabling business owners to meet their operational expenses, including employee salaries, payment to vendors, rent, and utilities. The project is expected to support 28,000 female-headed MSMEs.

The Turkey Rapid Support for Micro and Small Enterprises Project provides reimbursable financing support to medium-sized enterprises to help them avert pandemic-induced closure and to maintain their employment levels – with a special focus on women. Women-led and majority-women employee firms have an over 50% acceptance rate and receive a 10% bonus on the financing to help them hire new employees, buy equipment and pay recurring expenses.

But we know there is much more to do to accelerate gender equality, especially as countries look to achieve an inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery from the pandemic.

Investing more in education and training for girls and women is an important first step. In Europe and Central Asia, gender gaps in education are relatively narrow, but specific problems persist. Poverty remains the most important factor for determining whether a girl will access an education. Studies consistently reinforce that girls who face multiple sources of disadvantage such as income level, location, disability and/or ethno-linguistic background, are farthest behind.

Overall, more female students enroll in tertiary education than male students, but enrollment rates for women are lower than men for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-related fields. In all countries across the region, men in STEM professions have higher earnings than women in the same professions. Certain professions continue to be labeled across gender lines, leading young women to rule themselves out of careers in which they might otherwise be successful.

Across Europe and Central Asia, women’s potential in business remains largely untapped. The glass ceiling is still very much present. Women are generally found in lower and mid-levels of management. Occupational segregation and balancing family life and professional career contribute to these trends. Women continue to spend significantly more time on family and child-care, as well on household chores.

At the World Bank, we are working hard to help countries across Europe and Central Asia address critical gender gaps in education and health, remove obstacles to jobs, and break down barriers to women’s ownership and control of land, housing and bank accounts.

We must engage women as agents of change for peaceful, green, resilient, and inclusive development. Now more than ever, we need to support women entrepreneurs and business leaders, and accelerate action towards gender equality.


Anna Bjerde is Vice President for Europe and Central Asia at the World Bank.

Related Reading:

Women, Business and the Law (World Bank)

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women-Led Businesses (World Bank)

COVID-19 Business Pulse Survey Dashboard (World Bank)

Unrealized Potential: The High Cost of Gender Inequality in Earnings

Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ILO)

Gender Gaps in Eurasia: The Daunting Effects of COVID-19 (OECD)

The World Bank in Europe and Central Asia

The World Bank and Gender