The myriad impacts of COVID-19 have prompted metamorphosis in many forms. As observed in previous articles, the most farsighted businesses and consumers have recognised that opportunities invariably accompany threats and that crisis can be an engine of positive change. Today we consider how COVID-19 has underlined women entrepreneurs’ resilience.

Many companies and their customers have successfully pivoted to embrace the new normals that unprecedented disruption has brought. Acknowledging the tumult as a source of novel products and services, they have redefined what it takes to survive and thrive today and in the years ahead.

According to our recent research, within the sphere of entrepreneurship, some of the best examples of resilience and imagination in the face of the pandemic have come from women. The fascinating point is that many women entrepreneurs have pressed ahead despite not having the luxury of choice.

In July 2020, the International Monetary Fund warned that COVID-19 could threaten three decades of socioeconomic progress for women. In general, due to persistent gender stereotypes and expectations, women still receive less pay, hold less secure jobs and assume the majority of caring responsibilities.

As a result, they’re less likely to find themselves in the enviable position of being able to sit back and wait out a crisis. Issues affecting their career progression – including self-employment outcomes – tend to leave them with relatively little wiggle room at the best of times, let alone in extremis.

It shouldn’t come as an enormous shock, then, to learn that women usually bear the brunt when a significantly disruptive episode occurs. This has certainly been the case since March 2020, with their size and the sectors in which they operate leaving women-owned businesses particularly vulnerable to the consequences of coronavirus and related lockdowns and restrictions.

Perseverance in any circumstances

It’s worth noting that policymakers have been painfully slow to tackle many of the additional problems women have to confront. For example, less than 30% of self-employed women have been eligible for the government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme throughout the crisis.

Nonetheless, many have continued to show remarkable strength and adaptability. Our study, which explored women’s enterprise in light of COVID-19 and other crisis contexts, reveals the range of women’s experiences and the diversity in their strategic responses.

Take women entrepreneurs who have travelled from the global south to the UK, where they potentially face lengthy periods of inability to work. Our research shows how these individuals have managed to draw on deep reserves of resilience to set up successful enterprises and provide for their families.

Most have also engaged in community, voluntary and social enterprise activity. In doing so, they have contributed to the continued socio-economic development that the IMF warned could be in peril. One now has numerous employees, has received a prestigious industry award – along with a sizeable cash sum – and has even written a book.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that these women have proven capable of persevering throughout the pandemic. We mustn’t forget, after all, that coming up with innovative and resolute responses to unfolding circumstances has frequently been key to their careers.

Much the same can be said of the wider community of women entrepreneurs. Even though the majority may not have accessed financial support and other types of assistance, they have dealt with lockdown and its corollaries head-on.

Unique demands and innovative responses

Our research shows a lack of available childcare, in tandem with a need to home-school, has clearly affected women entrepreneurs with young children. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, women have also faced more caring responsibilities concerning the elderly and a direct consequence of COVID-19.

Even the owners of businesses that didn’t have to close have thus been restricted in their capacity to work – yet most women haven’t been hibernating. As stated earlier, this is a luxury they don’t have. Some have been forced to shut temporarily and try to weather the storm; others have been left with no choice but to close permanently, but many have been upskilling.

Some have been strategising. Others have been networking. Generally, they have been demonstrating considerable ingenuity in increasing the likelihood of business survival – and in some cases, the prospects for future growth.

This has often entailed gaining additional qualifications or starting new enterprises as “side-hustles”. Looking ahead, many women have been able to maintain revenue and diversify income streams to maximise sustainability over the longer term.

Reflecting the trend mentioned at the outset, many have elected to pivot. Some have done so on a makeshift basis, anticipating the resumption of normal business activities. In contrast, others have treated the traction gained in recent months as a basis for further expansion.

As we have remarked since the beginning of the crisis, COVID-19 has underlined that staying the same is very rarely an option. Many women entrepreneurs have long been acutely aware of this fact, and their determination to circumvent challenges remains as steely as ever amid the epochal events affecting us all.

Dr Lorna Treanor is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE). Paul Kirkham is a researcher in entrepreneurial creativity and Ingenuity Learning Support Development Officer at HGIIE.

This article is based partly on findings detailed in Adeeko, N, and Treanor, L: ‘Negotiating stigmatised identities: enterprising refugee women in the United Kingdom’, International Small Business Journal. DOI: 10.1177/0266242621997033, and Dr Treanor’s forthcoming research.

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Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.